Introduction: North

Like their counterparts in other languages, women writers of fiction in North India have also played a crucial role in sensitizing the public about the various issues related to women. Feminist discourse has been kept alive in the many journals edited and published by women. These publications offer a platform from which the suppressed feminine self can express the innate thoughts, passions and sentiments. Women writers are a strong presence in the Indian literary scenario. In the last fifty years, there has been a significant development in the themes expressed as well as the manner of expression in fiction. The bane on explicit reference to sexuality has been lifted and women writers have begun openly speaking about it. Body consciousness along with intellectual consciousness finds expression in the modern short story.

Feminist fiction in the north is characterized by experimentation in language, structure, forms and narrative style. The usage of local dialects and common idioms cloak the stories in a vesture of naturalness, taking them closer to the hearts of the readers. The similarity of events and themes invoked, signify empathy among the writers as well as their individual efforts at social reform. Interestingly family, society and culture are ingrained in these stories. Many of the writers try to project the fact that it is only rarely that the woman sees herself as an independent entity with aspirations, aversions or singular achievements. It is observed that the powerful and the powerless — both categories are explored in fiction. The contrast between the educated and the illiterate woman is subtly portrayed, and the importance of education in empowering women is highlighted in many short stories. An important consequence of the frankness attained by women writers is that they now also deal with issues, which are no longer purely in the realm of the feminist or the patriarchal, but common ones faced by the society.

Regarding the short stories selected for this issue of Samyukta, some twirl into the twilight zone of dreams, memory and what Andre Lorde calls ‘rememory.’ They emphasize primarily on refiguring the powerful and sexually expressive evaluation between psyche and language. What Irigaray calls relation of ‘woman to herself,’ to her psychic and bodily rhythms and the hitherto ignored grey areas of woman’s fantasy, is delicately hinted at in Mridula Garg’s “A Woman is Born”. All forceful women give birth to words flowing in accord with the contractual rhythms of labour. Language attends to memories of childhood and bodily rhythms. Building on Freud’s notion that the unconscious is represented in the disruptions of syntax or slips of tongue, Irigaray argues that woman’s unconscious also might disrupt the ordered syntax of traditional literary criticism making writing and even speech turbulent and non-unified.

The language of Mridula’s protagonist in “A Woman is Born” combats the brutally impersonal authority effects of the magisterial father tongue in a unique way. It moves in loops and curves like sparrows glissading, bursting with geothermal energies to establish a full-fledged relation not only with the protagonist’s lost identity but also with that of the other woman, her fellow sufferer not a few months ago who has lost not only her life but that of her child too. The identical “torture” of “unattended” delivery on that “haunted” cot in the remote village establishes a bond between them. The “psychological” and the “sociological” bereavements are knit together in the typical feminist mode. This is how the “personal” culminates in the “political.”

Maitreyi Pushpa’s protagonist bears evidence to the fact that the survival instinct teaches even the weakest among us to assert. Full of anecdotes and riddles, strange stories, witty folklores, most of our rural women typified in Maitreyi’s Isuria, are profusely sad and unbelievably vibrant at the same time. They sing unending songs, complete today’s thought tomorrow and when they speak, strange voices rise from the depths of their bodies and the recesses of their lungs like water gurgling beneath the ground.

Though there is no room in their lives to go far, they spread their arms — one in the sun, the other in the mist and thus the half-sensitized Basumatis learn from them the art of filling the emptiness of life between nonsensical, sensational events with innumerable little deeds of kindness, well-meaning smiles and thoughtful gestures. That one deciding vote that accounts for Basumati’s husband’s (her feudal lord’s) final defeat is her own. Not that she has a personal grudge against him, he is all right with her, but his callous, self-centred approach to people in general creates a chasm between “personal” and “public” loyalties, and ultimately in her confessional letter to the mentor Massa’b, Basumati admits: “I just could not kill the Isuria in me!” This is how woman bonding transcends class and creed.

The third story “Pret Yoni” is magnificent basically in its mapping of the unique moral geography of a girl in distress, a girl who bravely escapes the clutches of a rapist, lodges a complaint against him in the local police station, arouses public support — all this she does in one go but tackling the five rapists “present in her own home,” the five near and dear ones “intent on violating her mind” — takes time! Brilliantly Chitra Mudgal delineates through her protagonist the unconscious anger of people misused, imprisoned, exploited, crumbled, drilled and silenced. The way the protagonist locates and counters her sense of “hurt” unravels a little girl’s multi-layered, multi-cornered fight in a transitional society like ours.

All the three stories, in the typical feminist mode have succeeded in the art of the leisurely appraisal of the common placeness, the thinginess and the dailiness of life where epiphanies and liquid perceptions are subtly phased into one another, characters and situations multiply and recreate themselves, and all the ironies of a woman’s fate in a semi-modern society seem to be spawned by an intelligent camera. Our real world of muddle, pain and insecurity could have been handled only through this good magic of morally responsible art.

The Punjabi stories selected are by the well-known writers Amrita Pritam and Ajeet Cour. Amrita Pritam’s stories epitomize the essential agony of the woman in a male dominated society. One does not however see her explicitly criticizing the male sex. The story selected here “Stench of Kerosene” is a beautiful depiction of human sentiment and how selfishness and money destroy the finer emotions of man. Manak’s devotion to his first wife Guleri makes him dead to his second wife whom his mother had forced him to marry for an offspring. The newborn son arouses little feeling in him and becomes only a reminder of the gruesome death of his beloved.

Ajeet Cour’s short stories reveal the plight of women entangled in relationships, which pitch them in a lower or unequal position. She also brings into her stories typical situations and occurrences in life, aspects that touch every member of the society. Her writing is candid, deep and inspiring. Ajeet Cour’s story “Ali Baba’s Death” is quite disturbing in its portrayal of the modern Ali Baba, Ram Lall, a clerk in the Municipal Corporation who is the silent witness to the corruption rampant in his office. The name “Ali Baba” is ironical since Ram Lall is virtually powerless to effect any change in the system he lived in. He feels surrounded by not forty, but forty-thousand thieves but cannot lift even a small finger against those. The story brings home the ugly fate of the average lower middle-class Indian who bears the brunt for all the misdoings of those at the top.

Is a noted poet, essayist and translator. Has been awarded the Fellowship for Young Writers by the Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India (1995-96). She has also received the Rashtrabhasha Parishad Award for the Novel (1987) and Bharatbhushan Award for Poetry (1996). Is actively involved in women support activities. Member of several academic bodies.

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Is a noted poet, essayist and translator. Has been awarded the Fellowship for Young Writers by the Ministry of Culture, Govt. of India (1995-96). She has also received the Rashtrabhasha Parishad Award for the Novel (1987) and Bharatbhushan Award for Poetry (1996). Is actively involved in women support activities. Member of several academic bodies.

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