To homogenise writers from different languages and to further look for similarities between writers in the same language is perhaps to commit a grave injustice to literary traditions of a language and the individuality of writers within a tradition. When dealing with a particular literary tradition, while many of us interested in women’s writing assert that we cannot universalise experience and that there is a tradition within a tradition, we sometimes tend to forget that there will be other tradition/s too within this tradition. Granted that we are dealing with patriarchal structures. Granted that we read women, and therefore women writers as being conscious of the hegemony of the patriarchal structure. We cannot but take into account various other factors, which lead to the self-definitions of women. To use a food metaphor, especially in a journal coming out of Kerala, it is like avial, where the individual textures and flavours of the vegetables are retained.
To think of South India is often to think of the four languages that represent the four states—Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu. It is perhaps important to remind ourselves that Urdu has had a great role to play in the Deccan. Therefore, to try to understand the varied ways women have written about themselves would be to look at the writings of women from different castes, religions, classes, languages etc. A deliberate attempt has been made to represent young upcoming writers as well as established writers. Women have always been accused of writing only about their condition in a patriarchal society without paying any heed to other “important” issues or to “artistic” innovations. Without being apologetic about such writing we have tried to show how women’s writing is as varied as their perceptions of life. Such a vast area of study cannot adequately be represented in a short section. But this section is an attempt in that direction, a small step forward towards that long journey.
“Seemantha” by the Kannada writer Nagaveni seems a simple enough story. It is about a common practice—seemantha—in most South Indian households. The story however brings out the cultural specificity of the Bunt community in South Canara. The story narrated from the perspective of a young girl and a poor relative at that captures questions of gender and class, thus questioning the very process of looking at women’s experiences as uniform. When “Seemantha” is placed in the context of the anthology Naakane Neeru in which it appears and contemporary Kannada short stories by women, it gains a special importance as it recognises that the structural division amongst women is as significant as divisions between men and women. Autonomy and constraint, which may not be understood through a simple dichotomy of male domination and female subordination, are neatly captured in this story. Looking into issues related to women through this perspective as well reveals the complex and diverse kinds of subjection they undergo.
On the other hand, Madhavikutty’s story “The Lost Neelambari” is from an older woman’s perspective by a well-established Malayalam writer who the English reading world knows as Kamala Suraiyya. The story admittedly revolves round the cliched love-triangle plot and like every other story handling the same theme, shows how adherence to orthodox conventions precipitates profound sorrow in human lives. The protagonist, Dr. Subhadra Devi’s attempts to revive the softly glowing and enduring embers of love for Ramanujam Shastrigal in the sunset years of their lives is reminiscent of the ending of Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. But the last scene of “The Lost Neelambari” seems to pay obeisance to the Indian ethos – a surprisingly conventional conclusion from the author’s iconoclastic pen! The attractiveness of the story perhaps lies in its creator’s very ability to thwart readers’ expectations and thus live up to her own reputation for unpredictability. For a writer who has pioneered the recording of the awareness of women’s sexuality, this story deals with the issue of love from a romantic perspective. How should a reader react to this kind of a turn in Kamala Suraiyya’s writing?
If Kamala Suraiyya deals with a traditional upper caste/class woman, P. Valsala’s Malayalam story, “The Nectar of the Panguru Flower” takes us into the beauty of nature and the “uncorrupted” lives of the adivasis amidst it, contrasting it with the restrictive and constricting atmosphere of the “civilised” world. In the story, Valsala presents Basavan, a child of nature, an adivasi, who is more at home in the wild than he is at the village. He is the primitive man who does not need the trappings of civilization to live. Living off the forest, Basavan and Challi live a life that is not pigeonholed and compartmentalised. The lyrical quality of the tale highlights the bond between man and nature and the artificiality of civilisation . While credit must be given to the choice of the subject, as we rarely come across the lives of adivasi men and women in most literatures, the way in which their lives are eulogised, the manner in which the woman is equated with the tribal goddess etc., in this story leave us wondering whether the only ways of representing the “other” is either to criticise or to romanticise!
Not necessarily so, Shajahana, a young Telugu Muslim writer, who depicts the life of the backward class Muslim community in the Telangana region of Andhra Pradesh seems to say. Written again from the perspective of a young girl, but this time from a better economic background ,unlike the protagonist of “Seemantha”, the story very effectively captures the lives of the poor, backward class Muslim community, and more so the life of an older woman there. This story brilliantly brings out how the double bind of class and gender can make a woman’s life miserable. The language that the writer uses in this story captures the flavour of the spoken language that is specific to the region, religion and class that the characters belong to. There is no romanticisation , no condemnation — just an empathetic narration of lives through a rendering of their customs, language and region.
Bama’s “Annachi” is another powerful rendering of the lives of the oppressed Dalits of Tamil Nadu. Mainly through a conversation between the narrator and the protagonist, Bama brings out the oppressive forces that operate in the lives of the poor exploited Dalits. There is a touch of humour in Bama’s story, which dispels the notion that women’s writing is too grim. Another notion that it challenges is that women only focus on women’s issues. Here, the caste and class of the character take preponderance over gender.
Some regions have never been properly represented. Power structures annul the voices of people coming from such regions. Their language, their ways of living etc., are often ridiculed. Telangana in Andhra Pradesh is one such region. So one can imagine the status of women writers within the community of Telangana writers — doubly suppressed, to use a familiar enough term. A well known writer from Telangana, Mudiganti Sujata Reddy’s is a voice that questions such hegemony. The theme of the displacement of a woman and the effect of multi-national culture on her has been tellingly brought out in this short story. Her style that blends legend with a touch of magic realism further strengthens her point of view. Though “Silence! Silence!” may be read as a story about the effect of urbanisation and multinationals in the life of any girl coming from a non-urban background, a close reading of the text will reveal that the text has resonances of Telangana region and its culture.
Damayanti in the Tamil story “Hawk Cuckoos” uses the letter mode where a young woman describes the difficult lives of lower middle class working women who are often easy targets for sexual exploitation. The story is one of the most criticised stories of Damayanti. Critics have pointed out how the marriage hall is hardly a place for a casual sexual encounter and how the story will set a bad example for the younger generation. But this can be viewed as an insistence on certain stereotypical moral codes. Further, the story does not preach or justify the action, but only states it as a possibility. This, according to me, is a definite highlight of the story. Damayanti’s writings are also criticised for their inconsistencies in the use of the short story form. This is one story where the form and content are neatly dovetailed. Simple, matter-of-fact telling, but what a powerful critique of society — more so because it employs the mode of a personal letter from a woman to a man who wishes to marry her!
Sara Joseph’s critique of society, especially of its attitude towards women’s body, is narrated in a simple and hard-hitting manner. In “When This Body Encircles Me” she writes back to a male author and to sections of society that reduce a rape to a trivial incident. Her story of Radhamony must touch a chord in every sensitive person, for it deals with the effect of different kinds of sexual exploitation during childhood, adolescence and womanhood on the psyche of a woman.
Another critique of society, this time not of the patriarchal or the caste structure but of the forces that bring to the fore religious differences among friends in a place fraught with communal tension is Jeelani Banu’s Urdu short story, “The Accused”. this story has been chosen because it vividly describes the anxieties and fears that crop up in the consciousness of people in a charged atmosphere. Look at the way Nisar was portrayed — full of confidence in the beginning but slowly giving way to anxieties and fears and finally the shattering of his confidence. Fortunately sanity prevails when the two friends belonging to two different communities get back together, though in a defeated manner. Jeelani Bano seems to be conveying that religion should remain a part of one’s personal life and should not get spilled over into the public domain—a difficult proposition these days! Written from the perspective of the Muslim male, who suddenly feels he is “the accused”, the story moves swiftly between reality and fantasy to bring out the confusion within him.
Gracy’s Malayalam story, “The Outer Aspects” takes us through the harsh realities of life by fantasising what the train encounters en route. The sight of a train whizzing through mountainous countrysides with their tunnels and busy cities with their level crossings is perhaps too ordinary to merit a second glance or thought. But to a sensitive writer like Gracy, this commonplace spectacle is imbued with a hidden and deep pathos. In the story “The Outer Aspects”, the train is not a mere vehicle absorbing and disgorging people, but a living being whose ears capture the wails of the distressed dead and whose heart heaves with helpless sorrow. One cannot but marvel at Gracy’s rare creative genius that can effortlessly transmute a fairy-tale like simple story into a powerful social indictment against the poisonous atmosphere of Kerala, reeking with political blood baths, neglect of children, gang rapes and dowry menace A very powerful short narrative! How different it is from the others we have looked at so far, but it is the sensitivity of this woman writer that allows her to see the treacheries of life.
We have indeed journeyed a long way, not only in terms of kilometric distances between the states but also an entire gamut of experiences and between forms they have been represented in. If these were but samples of the creative impulses of the short story writers in these languages in these states in the last ten years, we would certainly look forward to the undiscovered ocean before us.
ALLADI UMA. Teaches English at the University of Hyderabad. Her research interests are Indian Literatures in English, Women’s Writing, African-American Literature and Translation. Her work includes Woman and Her Family: Indian and Afro-American, A Literary Perspective and several papers in journals of repute. She has been doing collaborative translation with M. Sridhar for many years and has published Woman Unbound: Selected Short Stories by Volga and Ayoni and Other Stories, translations from Telugu to English of short stories from 1910 to the present, with woman as the main focus. They have helped edit two numbers of Indian Literature on Telugu Writing for Sahitya Akademi and edited an issue of The Book Review on Contemporary Telugu Writing.