Thoughts At Lit- Sems

{I enjoyed the mental stimulation of being a Chief Guest at two national seminars : one on Indian Women Writers and another on  Female Portrayals in Indian Fiction. A sum-up of my general thoughts( excluding detailed individual author critiques) on both occasions.}

Virginia Woolf’s famous  lecture “A Room of One’s Own”  presents the poignant fictional archetype of Judith Shakespeare to elucidate prior suppression of the intelligent and creative woman.  As the famous playwright’s sister, she imagines the likelihood of her being reprimanded each time she picked up  a book in preference for household duties. And while William Shakespeare’s genius is idolized by the world, an unfulfilled Judith Shakespeare ends her life in lonely suicide.

Literature is an  evolving  zone where new themes or their expanding dimensions keep pace with events and ideas.  It is also an expanding zone which  accommodates writers from many more  places with distinctive stories to tell. These processes of evolution and expansion inform our consciousness with newer insights and illuminations. They  are evident, for example,  when the same tale is told with  different viewpoints in two iconic books, with a different time period and situational foci of the writers.    Charlotte Bronte’s 19thcentury novel “ Jane Eyre” has been hailed a triumph of   feminist liberalism, highlighting a young woman’s  search for identity and love amidst the patriarchy of Victorian England. In the course of the novel, Jane encounters  Bertha, the first wife of her husband- to-be Mr Rochester.  In “ Wide Sargasso Sea”, Jean Rhys makes us re-imagine the West Indian madwoman of Bronte’s classic with its racially biased stereotype, for a sympathetic look at Bertha. We discover her identity as Antoinette in Jamaica, and the oppressive circumstances that make her the insane arsonist in Jane Eyre.   Published in 1966,  Rhys draws on her experience of  the West Indies to depict the cultural confrontations between the islanders and colonials on a 19th centuryCaribbean landscape. Incorporating  modernist, feminist and post colonial thinking  it  exposes the narrow literary canon that presumes a homogenous White western  heritage in its readers and espouses a racial and cultural pluralism.

Women writers are usually attuned to  psychological realities and  social process, qualities  highlighted in the continuing popular appeal of  Jane Austen’s “ Pride and Prejudice”, contrasting with the niche academic survival of iconic poetic works by Shelley and Byron published the same year. One may discern in women writers sensitivities and sympathies that spotlight social inequities. Though many may call it a novella, Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoco” written in 1688 is sometimes credited with  being  the first English novel. Aside from this pioneering distinction,  Behn’s experience of a sugar plantation in Surinamcaused her to sympathetically touch  on the plight of the Negro slave, a theme that later resonates in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”– the influential book  that would inspire the emancipation agenda of the American civil war. Though both writers were white, it did not impede a plea to  review  oppression of another race, paving the way for those emancipations that would one day enable Toni Morrison to write as an actual person/ woman of color.     

The large market in the West allows women writers to occupy the literary space from the frivolous to the serious, the Mills and Boon’s to Nobel Prize winners, and also like Agatha Christie and JK Rowling to shine in niche genres like detective fiction and fantasy. Most Indian women writers are  concerned with serious issues, because in many ways they are interpreting Indian realities to the world. Societies in the West have reached a point of being  homogenized, whereas in India the socio- cultural reality is both very complex and diverse, which can make some simple themes very profound. An innocuous theme like normal heterosexual love can take on very explosive connotations in the conflict- ridden contexts of caste, creed, region and economic disparity. Even those works primarily written for entertainment value, in the Indian context  serve as sociological record of a country in transition.

There are of course some places whose insiders can neither break out, nor is there  access for outsiders to share their searing stories. Paradoxically therefore  some stories of victimhood are better imagined than narrated.  If  narration happens, whether the author is male or female, the emergent understanding is profoundly moving. Khaled Hosseini’s “ A Thousand Splendid Suns” highlights the horrific oppression of women under the Taliban in Afghanistan, and could be equally true of women in fundamentalist fortresses elsewhere. I remember a particular episode  where a pregnant woman  is turned away from the general hospital because it has been turned into a men’s only facility. The new women’s hospital has no facilities or medications; she must endure a ceasarean surgery without anaesthesia, performed by health  personnel hampered by traditional veils. Compared to that institutionalized oppression, even women figures in Indian fiction with perceived  emancipation agendas  suffer internal   conflict and confusion rather than violent subjugation. Their identity issues are mostly about resolving complex  psychological baggage.  Individual ground realties may differ, but the Indian state is committed to the welfare and protection of the Indian female, child or adult, through protective legislations such as those prohibiting dowry and pre-natal gender testing, combined with empowering measures like reservations, usually without equivalences for males.

A glance at paper abstracts told me there was often an automatic equation of Indian female author with feminist author, of general themes with an empowerment agenda. In a few cases, this could be true, and of course it is heartening to note that readers look to literature for empowerment messages. However, this could also diminish the import of other pertinent general messages. It could ignore the fact that mature writers might be  gender neutral, portraying individual characters as members of a universal human species rather than representatives of a particular sex.

To illustrate, in a Booker prize winning novel, a socially marginalized lower caste male is  weak compared to  the innately  powerful  woman who exploits her  upper caste, economically superior status to instigate his death  in the lock-up . A man’s gender is no power statement when grosser inequalities exist. To  read it in a feminist  light is to downplay its wider humanist and political concerns: the core critique of conspiracy between communist  ideology and religion, tacitly   denying individuals  at different places in the caste hierarchy the personal autonomy that  demolishes social barriers and inequality through the intimacy of sexual intercourse.

Generally speaking, Indian women authors have boldly covered a gamut of themes and issues. Their writings comprise  piercing post- colonial statements, sensitive socio-political economic critiques,  engaging explorations of  the Indian experience in foreign societies, and  perceptive works of psychological or philosophical depth. They must generally  be complimented for  mature gender portrayals that fit the needs of individual books, where neither  sex can claim a monopoly of martyrdom or villainy.

As a novelist, my primary aim in “ Blossom Showers” is to tell a powerful story and explore some pertinent themes. Readers’ feedback lauds some gender portrayal innovations, especially in conveying convincingly the inner life of male protagonists, two of whose first person narrations drive the novel.   My female characters at each point over a time span between 1902-2010 are constructed to be interesting and compelling. Their personas exert powerful influence on the men around them. Their approach to love and marriage could be expedient, and their initiatives unconventionally assertive. Each actively seeks relevant self- realization. The feminine psyche might determine certain behavioral outcomes, but there’s a linkage with a larger sense of individual and collective destiny. I have avoided the cliché of male characters in an oppressive macho mould, showing the masculine psyche to be perfectly capable of intuition and empathy.

A society in transition is a stimulating place for an author to write in, and for a researcher to figure out. The young, for example have their own chick-lit prototypes, whose bold and assertive heroines negotiate the terrain between middle class mores  and the growing sexual freedom found in their globalized workplaces. This is certainly a time when the Indian woman has woken up to the opportunities of education and empowerment, perhaps with accompanying dilemmas of a work-life balance and evolving gender equations. It may happen that when individual and community empowerment are not concurrent, the clash between modernity and the orthodoxy of caste and creed  witnesses conflicts on new social battlefields- the emerging violence of honor killings.

There’s scope to examine post- empowerment phenomena in present and future writing.  Cognizance may be given to the strengths and powers of women rather than stereotyped ideas of victimhood that are often  premised in  women’s writing. For example, practically speaking we know that a woman who possesses beauty or hails from a high social status enjoys her own terms in a relationship, and today, you might add superior academic and career credentials for interesting behavioral dynamics. It’s time to acknowledge that a woman can be an independently interesting, often fascinating individual, perhaps with her own behavioral ambivalences.

The dynamics of human  relationships are often obscured in the  convenient catchword of patriarchy. This can be puzzling because psycho-analytic theory posits the gravitation of children and parents of opposite sexes to each other, and practically speaking we know of fathers who dote on daughters and its parallel. These are relevant issues when we are talking about female foeticide, for example, when it is the woman who submits her body, willingly or unwillingly for the exterminating act, sometimes with unfortunate collusion of women health personnel. This  places an onus on writing and popular creative works like film to alter  internalized or inherent biases – to awaken both men and women to the promising possibilities of a girl child.

I assert it is equally possible for men to  write supportively about women. The ancient Greek dramatist Euripides wrote with  feminist empathy to understand a complex character like Medea who murdered her own children. Ibsen’s “The Doll House” makes that forceful plea for a woman to be treated as an individual rather than as a plaything.“ A Thousand Splendid Suns” strengthens the idea that the powerful tie binding women  overcomes  the sternest patriarchy. This theme is noteworthy, because women should enjoy the assurance of “a conspiracy of cohesion”- of supportive bonds between members of their own sex and also in alliance with empathetic men to counter archaic social forces.

“IAM, therefore I write’,  is my personal writing philosophy,  believing the individual interface between inner make up and external reality directs the imagination and  determines  the nature of output. There are probably other writers who may well say “ I AM NOT, therefore I write”, treating the literary impulse as a weapon to address either the marginalization of the self, or the multiple marginalized individuals,  issues and injustices that a writer identifies with. Gender could be a metaphor for other identifications, as when particular authors  equate the feminine psyche with nature, nurture and conservancy. Both kinds of conviction,  must animate a composite literary scene, so that sufferings and sorrows are balanced by  selfhood’s strengths and successes, in the likelihood that triumphs surpass travails in the longer time scheme. There are probably a great many miles to go for a great many, but the substantial mileage of personal growth achieved by a significant number can never be discounted and deserves its due in fiction.



About proteanpen

Giselle Mehta, an entrepreneur, engages in writing, theater,public speaking and activities with a creative/intellectual stimulus. She is the author of the acclaimed novel "Blossom Showers."
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