World over, it has been proven over and again that pen is mightier than sword, whether that pen is writing fiction or non-fiction. The sign of a good writer is that they make you think, sometimes even re-think your long-held beliefs and values. In India, many writers – regardless of gender, class, or language – have faced backlash for their works, and a few of them have even faced ban of their books. MAKERS India takes a look at a few books written by Indian women, which stirred up controversy yet escaped a ban.
Lihaaf, Ismat Chugtai
An Urdu novelist and filmmaker, who witnessed the Independence era of India, Ismat Chugtai’s fiction was light years ahead of its time. Her short-story Lihaaf (The Quilt) written in 1942 was widely criticised for its portrayal of female homosexuality, a topic which continued to be taboo in India for decades that followed. Published in a Lahore-based magazine, the story was inspired by the love story between a woman who belonged to a wealthy family and her masseuse.
Although Lihaaf went on to become her best-known work later, Chugtai was summoned to court a couple of years after its initial publication, for defending herself against charges of “obscenity.” (She was exonerated.) Chugtai, whose writing was inspired by that of Anton Chekhov and George Barnard Shaw, has stated that the noise about Lihaaf took the focus away from her later works.
My Story, Kamala Das
Originally published as Ente Katha (1973) in Malayalam and My Story in English, Kerala-based writer Kamala Das (known as Madhavikutty to Malayalam readers) had drawn the ire of her family as well as her community with her autobiography, published when she was 42 years old. Although she has later admitted that parts of the book was fiction, My Story did throw light on the British culture and colonial era in then-Calcutta and Kerala.
The best-selling autobiography of an Indian woman to date, the book showcased her life since childhood, her family, adolescence and sexual awakening, marriage, children, literary career, and extra-marital affairs.
Renowned writer and former Secretary of Sahitya Akademi K.Sachidanandan has stated that there is no other Indian autobiography that “honestly captures a woman’s inner life in all its sad solitude and desperate longing for real love.”
Autobiography of a Sex Worker, Nalini Jameela
In 2005, when Nalini Jameela – a former sex worker and activist for sex workers in Kerala – wrote her autobiography, Oru Laingika Thozhilaaliyude Aathmakatha (Autobiography of a Sex Worker), she shook the very roots of common man’s understanding of this marginalised community of women. It sold a record 13,000 copies through six editions within just 100 days of the initial release, and was later translated into English and French.
Nalini, who took up prostitution as a single mother of two at the age of 24 due to extreme poverty following the death of her husband, had revealed in her book the atrocities sex workers undergo in domestic and public spheres. She had also thrown light on the hypocrisy of her “clients” as well as the necessity of economic independence for women, which in turn drew criticism as alleged glorification of sex work.
The Man From Chinnamasta, Mamoni Raisom Goswami
Assamese writer Indira Goswami, popularly known by her penname Mamoni Raisom Goswami, was at the peak of her career when she wrote Chinnamastar Manuhto (The Man from Chinnamasta) in 2005. Goswami , a winner of Jnanpith and Sahitya Akademi awards, has later said that the novel has heavily been influenced by her childhood experiences in Assam.
The novel, which criticised the centuries-old tradition of animal sacrifice in a Hindu temple in Assam, was an instant best-seller. It had called for the abolition of the practice of animal sacrifice – and the protagonist was a tantric - thereby provoking upper cate Hindus who used to practise it. Goswami reportedly has even received threats to her life from religious extremists after the novel’s publication, as they found her work to be giving a sadistic flavour to the ritual.
Ants among Elephants , Sujatha Gidla
Indian-American author Sujatha Gidla, who was born in Andhra Pradesh and moved to the US at the age of 26 in 1990, garnered international media attention with her first book itself. Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India (2017) is fundamentally the history of Sujatha’s family – who were Dalits, classified as ‘Untouchables.’ The story follows generations through the last decades of British rule in India, followed by Indian Independence, after-effects of Partition, and later peasant revolts and Maoist insurgency.
Recognised by Wall Street Journal as one among the best books of the year in 2017, Sujatha’s work showcased the life of Dalits – the everyday discrimination and humiliation they go through. The book vehemently criticised many leaders of Indian freedom struggle – including Mahatma Gandhi- as well as the political leaders of independent India.