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 stands are ones we wish to transform, not entrench….

If we restrain ourselves from enthusiastically recovering women’s writing to perform the same services to society and to nation that mainstream literature over the last hundred years has been called upon to do, we might learn to read compositions…not for the moments in which they collude with or reinforce dominant ideologies of gender, class, nation, or empire, but for the gestures of defiance or subversion implicit in them.

These “gestures of defiance and subversion” that the editors have traced in a dozen different languages—Marathi, Oriya, Urdu, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali, Hindi, etc.—make story after story and poem after poem ring with the wail of the woman scorned, the lament of the woman humiliated or dispossessed, the keening of women in distress; and the finger of blame is pointed not only at the patriarchy but at the wider world of power and imperialism that the editors, Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, feel that Western feminists such as Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert, and Susan Gubar have paid insufficient attention to and have not studied or understood as Indian feminists have.

In recounting the history of women’s struggles in India, the editors’ labor is as thorough, painstaking, and single-minded as in the earlier volume. If we are to study women’s literature (how bourgeois a term and concept in this context!) in order to discover “how the efforts of these women shaped the worlds we inherited, and what, therefore, is the history, not of authority, but of contest and engagement we can claim today,” and if we are also to ask, “What was the price they paid in these transactions, what did they concede, and how do those costs and concessions affect our inheritance”—then the study of the history and politics that are both the cause and the effect of such efforts and transactions becomes unavoidable.


Such aims set the editors apart from the feminists and literary critics of the West, and they are acutely aware of the difference:

We have tried to map the imaginative worlds in which women wrote. We have read their literary initiatives as attempts to engage with the force and the conflict of the multiple, cross-cutting determinations of their historical worlds. Literary criticism, in its authoritative, New Critical mode focuses on the internal structure and aesthetic achievement of what is taken to be a self-referential, hermetic text. In contrast, our readings have treated women’s texts as engaged in negotiation, debate, and protest, inevitably in areas that directly concern, or are closely related to, what it means to be a woman. These texts address real tasks in a real world, and are therefore documents of historical struggles over the making of citizen-selves and nation-worlds.

The study is emphatically not intended as one of private citizens and their distinctively personal and spiritual worlds. We are to look at women as “citizens” of a “nation”—words that lead one to questions regarding these two concepts as defined by the freedom movement and its leaders in the twentieth century. B.R. Ambedkar (1891–1956), the author of the Indian constitution, defined nationality as a “subjective psychological feeling. It is the feeling of corporate sentiment of oneness that makes those that are charged with it feel they are kith and kin….” In the words of the editors, “the geography of a nation is not so much territorial as imaginative.” The nation, then, is not only a theoretical and political entity but an imaginative concept that is consolidated by its art and culture, which are of course “always being recreated: contested, fractured, elaborated, redistributed, and rewritten…. Its closures, therefore—…are never complete, never total.” The Indian constitution provided for universal suffrage and therefore, at least theoretically, women were given an equal part in these activities; but the social structure, with its traditions, actually meant that women found themselves working in the margins, or in opposition to the general current. This was hardly what had been intended.

India had for its first prime minister a man who loved words and whose autobiographical Discovery of India has been called one of the “foundational fictions” of the nation. In Nehru’s inspiring speech on the “tryst with destiny,” made on Independence Day on the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi under the fluttering Indian tricolor, he had guaranteed the new nation political and economic self-reliance and the creation of a secular, democratic society. No one noticed, in the euphoria of the moment, the two quite different aspects of the promise: economic growth and independence would require the protection and fostering of the business and landed interests of the bourgeoisie and a new commercial class, and of necessity an imbalanced social structure, whereas the secular, democratic society was to be based on social justice and equality. The Congress Committee Resolution on Economic Policy made the same ambiguous commitment:

To evolve a political system which will combine efficiency of administration with individual liberty and an economic structure which will yield maximum production without the concentration of private monopolies…. Such a social structure can provide an alternative to the acquisitive economy of private capitalism and regimentation of a totalitarian state.

The committee also unequivocally stated that “land, with its mineral resources and other means of production, as well as distribution and exchange must belong to and be regulated by the community in its own interest.”

The weaknesses and tensions inherent in this concept had been established and became clearly visible in the Sixties and Seventies. Economic growth, agricultural development, and land reforms ran into problems, slowed, or stalled; the population soared, unemployment rose, prices spiraled, and peasant revolts broke out in different parts of the country. Students and urban intellectuals, traditionally the disaffected, threw in their lot with peasant revolutionaries, and the nation was wracked by violent outbursts, widespread protests, and strikes that paralyzed institutions from the railways to the universities. In 1975 the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, declared a state of emergency, postponed elections, suspended civil rights, and, for the first time in independent India’s history, imposed press censorship. The resistance movement was driven underground and silenced, but only briefly. Mrs. Gandhi’s program of enforced slum clearance and compulsory sterilization so enraged the public that the government was toppled: for the first time since Independence it was widely seen as not benign but adversarial, an opponent.

Once again, the editors write, “new forms of Indianness had to be invented, new identities forged for both state and citizen.” Women’s involvement in recent Indian history is seen by the editors as passing through three distinct phases since the 1900s: first, the program of the freedom movement called Swadeshi (“of one’s own country”); second, the Progressive Writers’ Association and its dealings with issues of caste and gender, and third, the feminist movement of the Twenties and Thirties as it resurfaced in the Seventies.


Swadeshi was envisaged by Gandhi as a program in which women had a crucial part. His choice of symbols—the spinning wheel that would produce clothing for India’s millions and put an end to the import of machine-made cloth from Britain, and the pinch of salt gathered on the seashore that would demonstrate the Indian refusal to pay British taxes—was brilliantly domestic, even feminine. As he hoped, Swadeshi involved the population at every level—folk art and crafts were revived, folk music played and sung, a village economy was encouraged, and local festivals were imbued with nationalistic ardor and celebrated.

Of course such a program selected what it was to revive, and often what was “revived” was an imaginary, or legendary, historical or religious phenomenon. When the poet-philosopher Aurobindo Ghosh (1872–1950) wrote of “a single and living religious spirit” he referred to Hindu spirit, for he went on to hope it would “Aryanize the world.” At the same time V.D. Savarkar, in his treatise Hindutva, presented his notion of the “Hindu rashtra” or Hindu state. The popular Bengali novelist Bankimchandra Chatterjee (1838–1894) wrote abusively of all foreigners—British and Muslim—in his acclaimed historical novels. The creation of the Indian “Self” was also creating the “Other”—a concept that has acquired monstrous proportions in today’s Hindu fundamentalist movement.

The next phase of political—and feminist—activity was influenced by the Progressive Writers’ Association and the Indian People’s Theater Association, and many of the women represented in the anthology belonged to one or the other. Joining these organizations between 1920 and the mid-1940s would have changed their lives, making them less domestic and more public, and would have put many women in touch with the wider community, giving them a sense of their responsibilities and importance. They wrote plays and took them on tours to villages and cities. They organized book clubs and discussion groups, studied folk music and theater, and consciously addressed social issues in their writing. Involvement with trade unions and peasant struggles transformed the lives of these middle-class urban intellectuals, but the literature they produced remained that of their class: the urban middle-class intellectual. After Independence, many of these activities lost their sense of direction as they were drawn into national programs for literature and theater, and state academies were set up under state patronage.

At the same time, the urge women felt to organize in order to achieve goals that remained elusive—education, better health and maternity care, the abolition of practices such as child marriage, dowry, and purdah—grew in strength. The All India Women’s Conference could influence government policy and did so consistently. There were some within the ranks, however, who felt there were “contradictions between the interests of women and the interests of Congress nationalists.” One worker at the WIA said that men had

welcomed the women into the struggle and honoured them because they wanted their help at this moment, but when women contest for seats at elections, when women come forward to contest places of honour and emoluments, it will be a quite different; it will be a fight between the sexes. Further, under our present social system, it will be an unequal fight.

She was right about the inequality but wrong about what was to be gained, which proved not to be seats or honor—Indian women have had both—but merely daily bread and a living.

For all the activities and efforts of women’s organizations, the texts in the anthology under review testify that the lot of Indian women has remained depressingly the same. Domination by the father and the husband, the strangle-hold of the social community or caste, illiteracy, ill health, dire and grinding poverty, slavish conditions of domestic life, the injustices of the dowry system and arranged marriages, unhygienic childbirth, unwanted pregnancies, and unremitting suffering—these are themes of the stories and accounts collected here; there are no others.

Although the AIWC became less active after Independence was won, its work had to be continued and is now largely in the hands of NGOs—non-governmental organizations—working with women in rural, tribal, and also heavily industrialized areas, often through unions and cooperatives (as in other times through schools and clinics). Many of the stories here are informed by such experience. The editors have drawn a parallel between the “consciousness-raising” groups of women in the West and the “speaking bitterness” campaigns of the Chinese cultural revolution. Both are suggested in the writing collected in the present anthology, although here it is the individual that speaks. Can individual compositions really substitute for group expression and perform the same function? There are inherent tensions in such an undertaking. The editors warn against such work being endorsed by feminists as “women’s experiences” that are part of a “female” tradition with a presumed affinity with peace or nature or the unconscious. They have no admiration for the enthusiastic circulation of such ideas among third world scholars. They urge their readers to study their selection of texts

not as new monuments to existing institutions…but as documents that displays what is at stake in the embattled practices of self and agency, and in the making of a habitable world, at the margins of patriarchies reconstituted by the emerging bourgeoisies of empire and nation…. We are interested in how the efforts of these women shaped the worlds we inherited, and what, therefore, is the history, not of authority, but of contest and engagement we claim today.

This lengthy, and weighty, introduction forms our guide to the texts. Clutching it, we make our way across the map laid out for us with such clarity and precision. But it can help us only so far and no further. Eventually we must wade into the literature and then our responses can be no more than individual and subjective. Often the information provided to guide the reader will seem confusing and even misleading; its relation to the texts is not always so obvious and biographical notes for each writer are written without the discernment and scrupulousness displayed in the introduction. Typical entries read:

Vatsala used the inaccessible hills of Wyanad and its fertile soil as a symbolic backdrop to present the loves and frustrations of a people untouched by modern civilization. Hidden within those silent hills were sad stories of the exploitation of the virgin soil and of virgin women. No other novelist has captured the topography of Wyanad so accurately.


Among those who have influenced her work, she cites Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Franz Kafka. Her themes, like those of many of her contemporaries, are alienation, loneliness, ennui, and the existential predicament.

The latter entry is followed by the lines:

Mine once the flowers of lips speaking,
Now turned stony seals.
Mine now the whirlpools of your mind,
The unfinished chapters of your life,
The bitterness of your days.
The vehemence of your passions.

The thorns in your path hurt my feet,
The pangs of your heart strike my ribs too…

This is only too typical of most of the poetry included here. Sugatha Kumari’s poem goes:

Night rain
Like some young madwoman
Weeping, laughing, whimpering
For nothing
Muttering without a stop…

Even verse by a well-known film star, Meena Kumari, is included—more for the sake of her personal allure, one feels (“an exceptionally beautiful and talented actress, always dressed in white”) than for such lines as: “The spattering, singing drops of rain / Hold poison and immortality too…”

One turns to the prose and finds that most of the stories deal with the woeful widow, the abused daughter-in-law, the neglected grandmother. Such a collection creates a portrait of a long-suffering creature who is dragged through life only by her sense of duty and self-sacrifice. It is true that some women do manage to make the “gestures of defiance and subversion” the editors promise us, sometimes only after their deaths, when they come back to haunt the wicked living. In “The Blanket” the avaricious modern young woman deprives her poor old mother-in-law of a beautiful imported blanket sent her by her son. She then finds she falls ill with a high fever when she sleeps under it and recovers only when she gives it away to a beggar woman. In “Life Sentence” the husband who thought he was doing a woman a favor by marrying her feels remorse after her death for her silent subjection to a lifetime of hard labor and self-denial. He says, “Only when I see newly married couples, I yearn to be born a second time and to marry Janaki again.”

In such circumstances, quite small incidents can acquire great significance. In Mrinal Pande’s “Fellow Travelers” an unhappy widow reaches the breaking point and expresses it by smacking her small son. But the opportunity for full-blooded revenge, calculated and deliberate, is given to few; a rare instance occurrs in Wajeda Tabassum’s “Castoffs,” in which a servant girl, tired of wearing her rich mistress’s worn-out clothing, seduces the young man who is to marry her just before the wedding. For once her mistress will experience what it is like to have what is cast off by another.

Curiously for an anthology with an openly political agenda, there is no mention in any of the texts of the major political events and circumstances in India during this century—British colonialism and the freedom movement. The editors themselves comment on this absence, but do not acknowledge the copious literature about them, for example in Raja Rao’s Kanthapura and The Cow of the Barricades, R.K. Narayan’s Waiting for the Mahatma, and Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. And if one is to keep to women’s writing, one could mention Attia Hosain’s Sunlight On A Broken Column, Kamala Markandaya’s earlier novels, Nayantara Sahgal’s fiction and autobiography, Qurrutulain Hyder’s River of Fire, Bapsi Sidhwa’s Cracking India, to name just a few. Avoiding the “mainstream” is not always a rewarding policy to follow.

Easily the most interesting work to be found here has no literary pretensions or ambitions whatever. In “I’m Telling You, Listen,” the Marathi actress Hamsa Wadkar conceals nothing in her plain and prosaic account of her life. She was the granddaughter of a courtesan, married an older man, suffered his beatings and punishments, supported his family and hers. She ran away to become the second wife of another man but returned, and eventually sank into alcoholism and solitude. Dudala Salamma, an illiterate peasant woman who fought in the Telangana People’s Struggle between 1946 and 1951 and whose oral testimony was collected by a women’s group seeking out the history of the women who took part in the struggle, tells her story complete with “the pauses, the waverings, the incoherence” of her original testimony.

You ask why I did feed them? Why have you come here to see me? Why do you roam about, for the Sangham or for women? I too wanted to do the same thing. At least you can read a few letters, but me, I used to graze buffaloes. I lived in the strength and faith that a communist survives on the strength of the shoulder. The struggle for fuel and water—I lived in such strength and power for it.

Also included is the autobiographical account of Baby Kamble, a mahar or Untouchable, who describes the life of her caste and its efforts to gain entry to temples and access to village wells.

Of course such work comes close to the “anthropology” that the editors despise as a tool of imperialism and the colonizer’s power. They refuse to treat it as such and avoid the glossaries that might, for some, seem to place it within that category. Sometimes the lack of such a glossary makes for incomprehensible reading, even when it comes to fiction: Anupama Niranjana’s story “The Incident—and After” is full of such phrases as “signed the letter with her mangalsutra” [her wedding necklace] and refers to a young man “pulling off his trousers” on entering his mother’s room. In a book complied for a Western, English-speaking audience, this surely requires explanation: he is going to get into more comfortable clothing such as a dhoti or lungi.

The collaboration of the editors and The Feminist Press has proved its worth in the two volumes of Women Writing in India. Perhaps their next venture should be into oral history, or autobiography, or letters and journals, material that lends itself much more tractably to their purposes than do fiction and poetry, which will not bend and remain stubbornly what they are—good or bad, but themselves.

This Issue

March 3, 1994