“Male writers are thought of as "writers" first and then "men". As for female writers, they are first "female" and only then "writers".”
― Elif Shafak
And for this reason alone, so many women writers detest being called “women writers” because it’s almost considered a novelty in the world of men. Krishna Sobti, one of India’s most renowned, fiery feminist writers was greatly vocal about this. To her, the idea of being called a “woman writer” set the cap for being seen as more “woman” and less “writer”.
While Sobti is part of a rich legacy of India’s classic feminist writers―outraging the patriarchy and questioning its very roots at a time when women were not encouraged to, in fact even prohibited from having a profession― she created an agency for the women writer to speak her mind―freely.
Centuries before Sobti, women writers were weaving feminism into their works. Accounts dating all the way back into the seventh, twelfth, fourteenth and sixteenth centuries―produced literary icons like Andal, Akka Mahadevi, Lal Ded and Meerabai respectively. After them came fiery writers from the Mughal era with poems by Nur Jahan and records by Gulbadan Begum (who wrote Ahval-I Humayun Badshah), literary works reminiscent of and by women of the times left―all left behind for perusal. This wave of historical pre-colonial women writers, many of them feminist writers, was followed by educationers and activists like Savitribai Phule who was vocal about her struggles in her accounts and later, Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati, who along with setting the precedent for future feminist writing led quite the colourful life: marrying outside her caste, setting up educational institutions, studying medicine and later converting to Christianity.
Years later, came the second wave of Indian feminist writers, with names like Sobti, Ismat Chughtai and Mahadevi Verma revolutionizing the Indian literary world by daring to speak about a woman’s everyday struggles and faced discriminations in a society known to disfavour them from the start. Today, the country boasts of hundreds of women writers, who identify as feminist writers, busy poking, prodding and dismantling the dregs of a male-dominated society. Women are fearlessly penning down the evils of patriarchy by simply writing a woman’s reality. Even then, despite the world becoming a little bit bigger, women writers in India continue to be type-casted: name-called, dismissed, politicised and the ultimate favourite: being lauded as “angry feminists”.
Much to society’s chagrin, women writers have decided to redefine their labels. Be it Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Meena Kandasamy or Bama―these feminist writers have taken it upon themselves to call out the daily prejudices and stereotyping faced by a woman in this country – stalled professional growth, unequal pay and opportunities, harassment at home and in the workspace and constant typecasting into playing the role of a wife and a mother.
One of India’s most notable authors and human rights activists, Arundhati Roy was awarded with the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1997 for ‘God of Small Things’, which became the best-selling book by a non-expatriate Indian author. While Roy’s works range over a vast number of subjects, God of Small Things is revered as a feminist study of the plight of women surviving in an Indian society. Through the span of four generations of women, Roy seeks to portray the very real plight of Indian women, bringing to light, their suffering, persecution, discrimination and anxieties outrooted by a male dominating society. Through characters like Ammu, Mammachi, Baby kochamma, Rahel and Margaret Kochamma, Roy examines their need to seek a sense of ‘identity’, to find their own agency.
Ilavenil Meena Kandasamy has become a trailblazer in the world of Indian literature. An activist, writer and translator hailing from Tamil Nadu, she edited ‘The Dalit’, a bi-monthly alternative English magazine of the Dalit Media Network from 2001-2002. In her book ‘When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait Of The Writer As A Young Wife’, the female narrator falls in love with a university professor and is eager for lifetime commitment, believing naively that it would be a marriage of equals. However, she soon faces domestic abuse and rape at the hands of her husband, who seeks ‘ownership’ of her and attempts to force her out of her academic and writing career. Through this book, Kandasamy journeys us through the inner strength of the narrator and breaks down the many elements of toxic masculinity that we face even today.
Kiran Desai’s ‘The Inheritance of Loss’, which won her the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Fiction Award in 2006, examines deeply the various faces of womanhood through the many female characters hailing from various socio-economic backgrounds. Her emphasis on Bela Patel, who was married to Judge Jemubhai Patel at the horrifyingly young age of 14, perhaps portrays the most vivid account of the lack of choices given to a young girl, or woman, in this country. Bela’s very name is changed to ‘Nimi’ by Jemubhai’s family― indicating the stripping of her very identity. When Jemubhai returns from England, he discovers that his young wife, who is on a journey of self-discovery, is no longer suited to his elevated position, and as resentment towards her and her ‘incapabilities’ builds, he begins to beat her―a man who ironically, is a law-maker himself.
Born in 1958, Bama Faustina Soosairaj or Bama, as she more famously known, depicts her journey growing up as a young girl from a Dalit community in her earliest works like ‘Karukku’ (1992), which won her the Crossword Book Award in 2000, ‘Sangati’ (2005), and ‘Vendetta’ (2008). Her work incurs a strong surge of intersectionality between gender and caste discrimination. Later, she established a school for Dalit children in Tamil Nadu.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s works contain a strong stinge of the immigrant experience, in particular chronicling the lives of East Indians refugees. While much of this theme centres in her famous book ‘Lowland’, a New York Times-bestseller, she also brings in a feminist angle through her character of Gauri. Gauri is a young, educated woman who unapologetically doesn’t harbour a wish to be a wife, a mother. She is married, first to Udayan and then his brother Subhash, but when there comes a choice to choose between a domestic life and education, she chooses the latter.
An Indian-American author, poet and professor, Chitra Banerjee-Divakaruni has won many awards for her literary work, many of which has been deemed radical feminist mythological fiction. In ‘Palace of Illusions’, she takes on an incredible challenge―retelling the epic ‘The Mahabharata’ from the point of view of a female narrator―Panchali―the wife of the legendary five Pandava brothers. Through Panchali, whose patriarchal name she deems ‘Draupadi’, Divakaruni presents a feminist interpretation of the historical story, by placing a modern twist at the centre of her narrative. Panchali’s birth, she says, prophecies that she will change the course of history.
(Edited by Neha Baid)