Damsels in Distress

Women Writing in India, Vol. II: The Twentieth Century

edited by Susie Tharu, edited by K. Lalita
The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 641 pp., $29.95 (paper)

Inevitably, the sequel to a book that has delighted its readers by its discoveries and its fresh insights and visions will disappoint when it does not repeat its achievement. When we come to the second volume of Women Writing in India, the ground has already been broken, the pioneering zest has become familiar, and what had astonished us by its novelty and courage can begin to seem labored and excessive. On hearing the same voices, the same arguments, the ear ceases to register all the shades and tones.

In their preface to the first volume the editors claimed that their anthology was “a joyous retrieval of artifacts that signify women’s achievement” and they fulfilled their promise by presenting such lost or unknown gems as the songs of the Buddhist nuns of the sixth century BC, the poetry of bhakti—divine love—rendered in glowingly erotic terms by the Sangam poets of 100 BC–250 AD, the journals in Persian of the Moghul emperor Humayun’s sister Gul-badan Begum, the remarkable autobiography of Bahinabai, a woman mystic of the seventeenth century, the fourteen-year-old Muktabai’s eloquent tirade against the cruelty and injustice of the Brahmins, the impertinent fun made of “The Bengali Babu” in verse, several lively and witty folk songs, the autobiography of Binodini Das, an actress and theater owner, and Sultana’s Dream, the first utopian fantasy written by an Indian woman.

In the second volume, alas, we are limited to the literature of this century and must trudge many a dreary mile, each sadly like the other, with exceptional or distinguished work only occasionally lighting our way. Where, in all this agony and lament, is the spirit, the courage and sheer creative force that illuminate so much of the Indian scene and of which we find evidence everywhere? It is in the color and fantasy displayed on mud walls, dusty thresholds, rag quilts, and silk weavings. It is present in song and dance, in family and community life, in fairs, festivals, pilgrimages, ceremonies, and rituals. Women have kept alive in language a sharpness of wit and inventiveness and a heritage of myth, proverb, and legend. Has the twentieth century succeeded in totally eroding all these? And what of the feel and savor of ordinary, everyday life, not life when lived at its highest pitch, but when it is merely sober and commonplace? One searches in the volume under review for a glimpse of these experiences, and begins to doubt one’s own memory, but one is brought up short by the editors’ stern announcement that “there will be few gratifications here,” and for several reasons:

The refurbishment of canons was not the primary task we ourselves addressed. Had the recovery of literature, lost or damned in the conduit of male criticism, been our major interest, we might have translated different authors, made somewhat different selections, and used different working norms….

We have not, then, simply tried to make good the loss for literary studies. The interests of that monumental institution as it…

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