It is by the late nineteenth century that women writers show an active presence in the field of Gujarati literature. For the earlier as well as the later women writers, the impulse to write originated in their concern for women’s plight. By the 1950s and 1960s, fiction by women came into its own. Major writers are Dhirubehn Patel, Kundanika Kapadia, Saroj Pathak, Ila Arab Mehta and Varsha Adalja. Their range covers a wide spectrum of women’s experiences but women’s oppression and women’s quest for selfhood are central concerns. They see this oppression as systemic, not sporadic, the outcome of patriarchal values and institutions. It was inevitable that since the only socially accepted role for a woman in that period was that of wife and mother, their focus should be on marriage – forced marriages, child marriages and the helplessness of the girl child, the young bride, the mature wife, the widow, in the face of overpowering hegemony. As the possibility of education and employment became increasingly available to a large number of women, by the thirties the woman as employee, not yet as a career woman, also emerges as a theme. More liberal social norms, which allow a woman choice of her partner in marriage, in their turn, create more dilemmas. Disparities in age give place to temperamental incompatibilities. The writers face up to the fact that there may be for some, no way out of the impasse or that courageous rebellion may lead to intolerable strain and collapse.
Regarding the writers represented here, women in their many roles across social classes have been Dhirubehn Patel’s major concern in her novels and short stories. But she has also written stories in which the central characters are men or children. In response to a questionnaire drawn up by the critic Jaya Mehta she has said that she believes that woman’s acceptance of her inferior status is the root of all her problems and change can only begin with a change in awareness, a refusal to accept inferiority. She is hence interested in the process of gender construction, the conditioning through which both women and men accept concept of gender appropriate roles and behaviour and gender hierarchy. Though she may not put it in specific terms, she seems to advocate as an ideal, what has been termed “androgyny” a union of supposedly feminine and masculine traits to constitute a balanced human relationship. Hence her focus may be on a young man, who in an effort to build human relationships eschews socially approved male roles. This happens in the story translated here.
Aditya, the protagonist, seems to be an androgynous personality — tender, gentle, caring, yet also firm and resolute. No Gujarati reader will fail to notice the parallel and the contrast with the situation in Govardhanam Tripathi’s monumental novel Saraswatichandra. Saraswatichandra, scholarly, mature, has through correspondence established a relationship with his betrothed, Kumud, yet he sacrifices her on account of an impulsive decision to abandon home and family. Aditya, though romantic and immature, has both sensitivity and integrity that Saraswatichandra lacks, when the test of his loyalty comes, he does not hesitate a moment and his conduct thus becomes a comment and a critique of Saraswatichandra.
In the very traditional society depicted in the story, Behnba brings about a reversal of gender and age hierarchies when hierarchies of wealth and social position intersect with them and undo them. The spineless father knuckles under, even though he knows that properties are being thrown to the winds and he will no longer enjoy the same reputation in the village. What matters least to him is the wreck of his son’s life. He does not even think in these terms. One father-in-law stands in for another. If Suhas is expendable Aditya is no less so, the story thus shows up the powerlessness of the young men too, though not to the same extent as the women. Only Aditya refuses to be powerless.
In her story translated here, Ambika Sirkar takes us into the world of the Kalavantins, women who were often accomplished in the arts, even leading singers, and yet whose ambiguous position never quite enabled them to be accepted by society, since they were kept as mistresses by rich men, sometimes a succession of rich men. Even the fact that a girl came from this community would be regarded as a slur. Negotiating their position in society, maintaining their self-respect, was a delicate art, passed on from mother to daughter. The mother in this story, while taking it for granted that her daughter would follow in her profession, shows great foresight, determination and circumspection in providing her with reliable patrons and in fostering the talent that she realizes her daughter possesses while she does not. And for Tarabai herself her music is her most precious possession. Her tanpura is her closest companion while her most enchanting memory, one she had lost and which her brother’s persistent questioning brings fitfully back to life, is the memory of a song, heard by her, not actually sung by her, her first memory of music.
In Women Writing in India, Susie Tharu and K.Lalita draw our attention to the artistic traditions kept alive by the courtesans in the courts of the South. In the North we have the tradition of the tawaifs. Feminist scholars are seeking to retrieve those traditions and in this story Ambika Sirkar renders movingly the life of such a woman, deprived of much, yet complete in herself.
Himanshi Shelat is very highly regarded, partly because she alone has produced a significant body of writing, partly because of the quality and commitment of her work. She has shown interest in the socialization of the young, their awakening to the realities of gender and class difference. The story selected here is one of several on the theme of violence and violation. Written before the carnage of 2002 it nonetheless reflects a recurring pattern of genocidal attacks that have gathered momentum over the last decade and created a mindset in which brutality is seen as legitimate. One of the most disturbing features is the pervasive involvement of the upper class in mob violence. Today it is socially sanctioned; it was not so to the same extent then. Sharda in her confusion is aware that if her story were given credence the young man would not be regarded as acceptable. Her problem is that her social milieu will not believe this of a man of their own class. The confidence, which the man himself exudes, is a grim pointer to the future.
Himanshi Shelat has written another story “Utkraman”, which takes us into the mind of a male participant in violence. The protagonist, who initially shrinks even from witnessing scenes of violence in a film, is appalled when urged to join in burning down a house from which he can hear screams issuing, calls out ineffectively to stop the crowd, but then himself joins in through a kind of herd instinct and feels no horror when looking at the photographs in the papers next day. As the title of the story suggests with its connotations of both increase and excess, the momentum of the violence increases, till the final enormity draws him in.
In our story, on the other hand, the focus is on the observer, not the participant. These are climatic moments in Sharda’s life, which shatter her carefree girlhood and make her aware of what it means to be a woman, living with the life-long possibility of violence and violation, of humiliating violation even in marriage. Her own humiliation has been of a different nature, she has evidently been jilted by a man named Kailas. Her unwilling complicity agent in the cover-up, points to the predicament of many others in the future.
Saniya prefers to be known and addressed even in ordinary life by her pen-name ‘Saniya’. Her writing career began with short stories but she has more recently also written novels. In an introduction to a collection of short stories by Marathi Women writers to which she has given the title Tichee Katha (Her story), Mangala Athlekar begins by making the point that the ‘she’ of the stories is so largely confined to living in man’s orbit, living for others, never for herself, so utterly reduced to the playing of a role–that of wife, daughter, sister, mother– that she seems to have no name, no face, her individual self is effaced. Many of Saniya’s women seek to negotiate these roles or to step out of them altogether, discover and recover their individuality.
In a story entitled “Bhoomika” (Roles) the protagonist Vasu is a successful office executive and has a close friendship with a colleague Shirang. It is in her that he confides when his wife is pregnant again twelve years after the birth of their first child, to her that the wife discloses her fears. In fact the fears are not unfounded; she does die in childbirth. Vasu is a support to the family in their loss but is shocked when Shirang proposes that she takes over as his second wife. To her mother’s way of thinking this is the ideal ‘opportunity’. But Vasu is clear that what Shirang and his mother want is not Vasu the person but a woman who will fill the roles of daughter-in-law, wife, mother, housewife. These are roles she neither wishes to play nor feels herself competent to play. She refuses the offer. In the unusual story translated here, on the other hand, the shift is in the opposite direction. The woman is just ‘she’; she has no name. The roles of mother and wife have been unsatisfactory but that is not the focus of the story; as her bored friend tells her, it is the same story in every household. Her move, however, is not towards individuality but towards collectivity. She identifies with what she sees to be in essence women’s underlying role, that of the victim of violation. Specifically the experience she undergoes in her dream is the experience of rape and it is with raped women everywhere that she identifies. But the violation, humiliation, nullification of women in myriad forms could also be signified by the act of rape. The face looming over her, the body pinning her down, forcing itself into her most private spaces, represents everything that wrecks the personhood of women.
If the term ‘role’ implies activity of some nature, then to speak of the ‘role’ of victim may be inexact. But the more powerful do seem to require someone on whom they can force such a role in order that they may play out in actuality their fantasies of power. And in this story, by identifying with all women forced into the role of rape victim, the protagonist becomes an active agent. Stepping out of her individual life, becoming part of a “vast, united, truthful existence” is a deliberate choice, a life she has “chosen”. She now has “the freedom to express it”. And hence, in time, the freedom to change it?
SHIRIN KUDCHEDKAR. An eminent feminist critic, was formerly Head, Department of English, SNDT women’s University, Mumbai. director of the Canadian Studies programme at the SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai. She was the editor of the Gujarati section of the two volume Women Writing in India, edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita. She has taught English for forty years and is an experienced translator. Has also edited a number of anthologies of poetry and literary criticism.