Is the challenge for South Asian women to establish themselves as authors different from the one faced by their western counterparts?
One becomes a writer form the experiences s/he has, situations, perspectives and a process of looking, showing and telling things are shaped very much by the society one lives in. In a place where the roots of patriarchy are still very strong, it is very difficult for women to recognize and establish their own voices. It is very difficult for such subalterns to speak. It can be explained in Luce Irigaray’s expression in her “This sex which is not one”, “it is not that we have a territory of our own; but their fatherland, family, home, discourse, imprison us in enclosed spaces where we cannot keep on moving, living as ourselves. Their properties our exiles. Their enclosure, the death of our love. Their words the gag upon our lips.”
Many women become the martyrs of the constant struggle between the freedom of her creativity and the constraints of the society around her. Last year, in a session (Jaipur Literature Festival 2013), writer Ira Pandey mentioned an incident from the life of a woman who wrote poetry in the space that she stole from her daily routine, she wrote two lines of the poem while cooking, a couple of lines while cleaning the house and so on. She completes the poem and tears it up at the end of the day to prevent the embarrassment it might cause before her children and her husband. So this appeared to me the fate of many women who at some point of their life aspire to be a writer but are forced by the society to give it up. All the women whom we can consider established writers of South Asia are the ferocious rebels, women of immense strength and profound determination for making themselves heard.
Language is one the most important challenges faced by these writers. Dominance of English over all the other vernaculars or regional languages mutes down many of these whispers by the women. As Ambai speaks in one of her interviews, “… and that is about the only award I have received in Tamil Nadu itself. The other awards have been for my translations”. The problem of recognition is very complex here. In a story by her “Squirrel”, we get a short glimpse of the treatment to the works by the several women writers. Moreover, even if one dares to break this boundary and speak up then there is the ‘Censorship’ that is bent upon silencing these voices. In the name of culture and traditions, many stories and couplets are not allowed to cross the threshold of anonymity, the veil is not lifted, darkness is smeared and many of these creations are sacrificed. Ambai expresses this in her own words, “The censorship happened not in terms of open discussion of what I wrote but more in terms of a total rejection of what I wrote. My first short story collection did not get reviewed for about ten years! Also no recognition in terms of awards came my way.” The writer is identified to be the kind of person form her writings. She is constantly misinterpreted and the sphere of personal and professional is completely diffused into one another. Ambai continues on this, “ there was also harassment at a personal level by some male writers and for several years what they imagined to be my lifestyle and my personality got lampooned.”
This urge to filter out the works many times ruins the originality in the writer. Everything is under surveillance in these countries, from the amount of skin exposed that might be considered provocative or vulgar to the whole thinking process and its exposure that can be considered immoral. Ismat Chughtai, a noted Urdu writer spoke many years ago how she was tormented to such an extent that she changed her writing style. It was after her controversial story ‘Lihaf’ that revolved around ‘lesbianism’, one of the recently “criminalized” phenomena in Indian society, was published, “people said that it was a very, very dirty story and that I was a very dirty peon, coming from a very dirty family.” She expressed how it effected her writing, “I never was so frightened and I never wrote that way again; I never repeated this mistake if you look at my writing, you’ll see that I then became very cautious in using frank, open words.”
Arundhati Roy, author of the booker prize winning novel The God of Small things, expresses similar filtration and ignorance of the issues raised by her novel. “People don’t know how to deal with it, they want to embrace me and say that this is ‘our girl’, and yet they don’t want to address what the book is about, which is caste. They have to find ways of filtering it out. They have to say it’s a book about children.” In her words, “it’s a very strange kind of oppression that happens here.”
The mesh of domestic “duties” and economic dependence on husbands, fathers, brothers and sons is another trap that stops women from taking up this profession. They never have enough time and money for themselves or ‘a room of one’s own’. We are considering a place where child marriage is still not completely abolished, where fathers still choose to save money for their daughter’s dowry than to invest it for their independence, to make them able, to educate them. We are considering a place where body, morality and virtue are all interlinked to one another, where cooking and subservience towards their husbands ‘pativrata’ are considered to be their religions. Besides not every woman writer can be Ismat Chughtai who, pregnant with her daughter still chooses to write a novel like Terhi Lakeer. One has to choose between a role of a mother, wife and writing as a profession.
Universe is different for the women writers here.
By MS Suman @ Jaipur Literature Festival