Abstract: These samples are presented here to illustrate various ways in which ‘decreation’ becomes manifest in literary writings. Sometimes it defies the societal norms, some other times, it helps one transcend the limitations of the human frame. There are instances when one transgresses oneself, contradicts oneself, challenges oneself. To make one’s publishing decisions vis-à-vis such literature is also to align one’s belief system and ideology with an oblique means, rather than the most obvious means.
Keywords: indian women, decreative act, women’s publishing, children’s literature, discursive practices, literature practices, Indian language
A close examination of a popular creation myth would illustrate how the prototypical woman’s ‘act’ in the Indic cultural matrix is radically formative even as it is apparently interventional. According to this version of the myth, Sarasvati, the first being created after Brahma, came out of the latter’s mouth —his off spring. There was no cosmos, only chaos. Everything existed in liquid state. Brahma wondered what he was to do with this riotous fluidity. At that point, Sarasvati gave him the solution. “With knowledge, you can bring order to this disorder”, she told him. “For, knowledge helps one find possibilities.” So, under Sarasvati’s guidance, Brahma acquired the ability to sense, think, comprehend and communicate. He now looked upon the chaos with wisdom shining in his eyes, and saw the immense potential that lay therein. He discovered the melody latent in the cacophony of chaos. Overjoyed that he was able to ‘create the world’, he named Saraswati, `Vagdevi’, the goddess of speech and sound.
Now Sarasvati danced around Brahma, who grew a face in each of the directions in which she moved, so that he would not have to turn his head to see her. Each of the four faces of Brahma then began to make poetic utterances, of course inspired by this Muse. Sarasvati now invented the art of writing, so that Brahma’s words could be recorded and preserved. Thus was born the Sanskrit language in which the four Vedas came to be written. Meanwhile, Brahma was struck by lust for the beauteous Sarasvati, but she did not respond positively to his advances. She floated over him in order to go away from his sight, but he grew a fifth face on the top of his head. Now Sarasvati told Brahma that all she offered must go toward the elevation of the spirit and not the indulgence of the senses. Yet, Brahma’s passion was not quenched, and Sarasvati fled his presence.
Brahma would not give up; he chased Sarasvati across the world, thus filling the world too with lust, while she took various forms to elude him, which gave her the name Satarupa. Finally, Sarasvati sought Shiva’s help, who obliged her by cutting off the fifth head of Brahma to restore balance in the world seized by the passion of its creator. Struck by Shiva’s violence, Brahma sobered down, and Sarasvati herself now revealed to him that through the conduct of a yajna (sacrificial rite) he could be liberated from the maze of his desire. At this point, Sarasvati, Brahma’s offspring, agrees to become his wife, as the rituals of the yajna were to be performed together with one’s wife.
Despite the overt patriarchal orientation of the myth that makes the ‘man’ the physical agent of change (Brahma the first being as well is the creator, and Shiva, the restorer of order through destruction), one sees that it is the woman who is the intellectual and creative agent here, capable of inspiring and inspiration, rewriting the old story, bringing about new faces, inventing the script, preserving the word -exactly the tasks of an artist.
We could slightly modify Theodore Adorno’s sentence to suit us here: Myth ‘is the negative knowledge of the actual world’. The critical knowledge about ‘woman’ embedded in the very text of this pronouncedly andro-centric myth serves as a site from where a feminist reader will recover ‘woman’ as the active intellectual agent of change in the world, Besides, Sarasvati’s signification as Vag Devi, the goddess of arts and learning, could make her an agency of critical reality achievable through endeavours such as literary writing.
Leaving the theoretical possibilities emerging from such interchanges between feminist locales and neo-Marxist thinking for further exploration, let me shift focus to a crucial derivation from the above reading of the ‘myth as negative knowledge’. This reading does not view the Vag Devi as a passive giver of ‘solutions’, but as an active participant in the performative text of these solutions. The paradoxes the myth presents are a clue to the negative knowledge it offers: Sarasvati gives Brahma the secret of knowledge to aid him in the creation of the material world, but later curses him that he would not be worshipped on earth as he had proved himself to be more sensual than spiritual; again, despite having invented the Sanksrit script to preserve Brahma’s words, she takes a hundred forms (satarupa) to elude the lust-ridden Brahma, and even causes the loss of his fifth head.
This paradoxical figure of Sarasvati opens itself to a fresh interpretation, and reveals to us the activism germane to her creativity. This activist/creativity dialectic thus derived makes the figure of Sarasvati, the ‘negative-Brahma’, a paradigm of ‘decreation’. We see that Sarasvaty, through her very participation in the act of creation, which the myth has otherwise attributed to Brahma, embeds a negative knowledge in the created world, simultaneously making it a site of decreation.
Let me explain my usage, ‘decreation’ in order to distinguish it from the term ‘deconstruction’. Decreation is a mode of artistic action manifest in a text, and not a critical method of analysing a work of art. Here, the subject in action is the writer/artist/character and not the critic. Decreation manifests itself in an artistic text, negatively situated with respect to an ‘actual’ text. ‘Negative’ here is obviously not the moral negative; it is the axial negative.
The decreative artist’s work is mediated through her ‘negative knowing’ of an ‘actual’ site, and results in the creation of a counter text that is symmetrical and apparently contrary to the ‘actual’ text already created as a ritual, a social norm, a custom, a discourse or a cultural artifact. I stress ‘apparently’ because the creation of the counter text is only its means, and not its end. While the ‘actual’ text of living is a potentially creative site of performativity, myth/ art – its negative knowledge – is a potentially decreative site of performativity.
In order to understand decreation as a performativie site, one must first recognise creativity itself as neither madness nor method, but as a performative code wherein both madness and method function interactively. But, very often in our hegemonic world, the performativity which propels the act of living is affected by discursive practices and as a result, the act is manipulated. Under such circumstances, the only site wherein one could recapture the self-illumining creative principle of performativity is ‘art’, and not ‘actual’ life. At such junctures, the negative knowledge encoded in a certain myth/art could make decreation, apparent. Thus, decreation embedded in myth/art is neither sanity nor indiscipline. It is an axially negative madness and an axially negative method, at once. It gives rise to an alternative creative world that unselfconsciously offers a critical reality to the knower/reader/ spectator.
Unselfconsciously makes further distinction between decreative art and the explicit activism/propaganda found in modes such as social realism. In our attempt to identify the true decreative strands in a writer, we might want to rephrase Jacques Derrida and ask, “What is Relevant in Writing?”1. The answer must tell us that decreation is indeed a matter of ‘seasoning – a three-pronged act that embeds in its matrix, the negation of the ‘actual’, a ‘negative’ remembrance of the ‘actual’ and an elevation from the ‘actual’. The answer must show us that the ultimate relevance of all art lies in its attempt to cross the ‘actual’, which has been made banal by various discursive practices. The decreative myth of Goddess Sarasvati negatively known from the andro-centric Hindu creation myth is used here as a paradigm to illustrate the activism embedded in Indian women’s writing through centuries, and, later, to find a theoretical framework to view the efforts by Indian women publishers to showcase ‘literary writing’ as a site of critical reality and as an agency of change. Hence, the following discussion on the Muse Shakti in publishing will find support from the analyses of a few decreative poems by Indian women, featured in the ‘Not to Conclude’ section of this part. This in the expectation of uncovering the radical connection between the urge for literary expression and the passion for publishing the ‘truth’ ensconced in literature.
The recovery of such interconnections also becomes crucial in our understanding of the distinctions between the Western feminist movement, which has a brief and rather well-documented history of three centuries, as also the two and a half millennia of Indian women’s activism. The manifestations of the latter have never been comprehensively consolidated for the simple reason that they span thousands of cultures, languages and locales that have resisted many a historical attempt at homogenisation, being embedded in the expressions of generations of women belonging to different castes, religions, ideologies, movements, classes as well as those who have stood outside these categories.
In the appendix to this section, I examine some sample poems/ excerpts to rediscover the integral relationship that women’s literary writings and women’s activism have shared for ages in this cultural landscape that we call India today. The transcendence achieved by these women writers through their decreative acts of negation of the ‘actual’, negative remembrance/knowing, and elevation from the banal, is the field that connects them with Muse Shakti, the Vag Devi who proclaimed that all that she offered was for ‘the elevation of the spirit’.
Vag Devi as Decreator naturally joins hands with the women publishers of India who also transcend the rigid feminist agendas of the movements elsewhere, to embrace the transformational/ transformative Shakti principle, which we discussed in the earlier sections. In this section, I have resorted to illustrative examples from women’s writings because of my personal wish to explore the continuity of decreation therein. But, let us not forget that at its best, all art is potentially decreative, irrespective of the socially created categories such as the gender of the author. It must be noted that the Muse Shakti animating the transformative enterprise of women’s publishing in India has unravelled this secret beyond the superficial categories of ‘actuality’, and has embraced all types of decreative literature. For, at its best, publishing is an acknowledgement of the decreative act of writing.
The decision of some of our women publishers’ to focus on special areas of literature such as translation of bhasha literatures, children’s literature, literature with graphic content, literary reviews (not criticism), etc., may be understood in the light of the linear notion of cultural liberation. While the activist mode of publishing is aimed at political, social and economic liberation of the underprivileged in the ‘actual’ world, in order to effect cultural liberation, one requires a reversal of the discursive practices prevalent in our culture, through a negative knowing of the same culture and its discourses. Only the narrativistic/ artistic mode of decreation would rid the modern day woman of the shadow of Sita that had been superposed on her since time immemorial, for, art alone makes new stories of liberation possible in our times afflicted by ideologies. This is where decreative practices in art and literature, which include the publication of the sites of negative knowledge, become relevant.
Whenever we talk about cultural liberation in India, two linguistic fields readily present themselves as sites for the unleashing of our repressed anger – Sanskrit and English. These are two cultural sites where we have identified some of the worst of discursive practices in culturality. We know that the feudal/colonial curse that has fallen on these languages is not easily removed. But that does not absolve us from the academic responsibility of examining their cases closely.
Let us first take the case of Sanskrit. The patriarchal, elitist bias in the use of Sanskrit language in literature has been a topic of heated discussions for sometime now. Our anger is often directed at the language itself, as though it were a living thing, instead of the agency of Creative literature. Further fretting is not warranted here, though we Must consider it significant that we could recover decreative women’s writings from ancient languages such as Pali and Tamil, while Sanskrit did not offer us such a space of recovery. Nevertheless, we have no reason to consider Sanskrit as a language that ‘consciously’ resists decreation. The contrary, in fact. With the mathematical perfection that It has attained as a language, it is perhaps the only linguistic site available to us today, wherein a decreative vision is inherent. Let me illustrate this:
Take the word `Samvritar. We shall begin with one of its meanings, “that which is covered’. From here, the word can lead us to its hundreds of meanings, which are derivatives of the idea of ‘cover’. So it attains meanings ranging from ‘stealth’ to ‘selection’, ‘secret’ to `wilderness’. It is also connected to ivrittam`, which is a circle, the root Idea of which is completion, which in turn connects it to death as well as eternal life. The idea of ‘cover’ is at once the criminality of a thief and the mystery that is God. Thus, examining, one would see that the word ‘Sarnvrita’ is a site where ‘actual’ opposites co-exist, as in the figure of Krishna, who is at once a thief and a god, a low caste and a king. The only key to understand this figure is – the decreative play of meanings in words, which is manifest in Sanskrit as a language.
The role of the creative/created narratives in the formation of stereotypes is apparent now. Clearly, the opposites of the ‘actual’ world are ‘created’ by means of a certain language, which in itself is trans-semantic/ trans-epistemic. Isn’t this very trans-epistemic quality of language that the poets explore in their decreative acts? Yes, and so, our true trans-colonial acts must consider how these very languages could be used as sites of decreative discourses, instead of simplistically attributing epistemic fixity to them. This initiative is `relevant’ in the cases of both English and Sanskrit in the Indian context. In the above regard, the decreative efforts of Indian English literary writers become seminal, as also the efforts of our women publishers who focus on transfiguring the colonial ruler’s crisp English language to accommodate our multi-dimensional bhasha cultures, many marginalized points of view other than women’s concerns, children’s speech, and the like. We will see in the latter part of this deliberation, four women writers decreating themselves using the English language. In their hands, this half English, half Indian language becomes “funny” and queer, yet it is theirs, and it reflects a mind “that sees and hears and is aware”.
I have already mentioned in the Introduction, what a gentleman’s paradise publishing industry in India was till a few decades back. Small wonder, considering how the colonial rule and the linear British education had provided English publishing in India with its founding fathers and ideals. It is interesting to note how Sanskrit literature was widely translated and published during the British time, while much of the literatures from different regions were either sidelined or overwritten. It could be surmised that it was the same Aryan urge to ‘create’ Sitas and Sarasvatis that governed the patriarchal considerations of the Colonial power, too.
It is in negation of the male-centred publishing industry with its colonial hangover that women publishers came into the scene with their transformative interventions. The high point of this revolution in the industry was marked by the women publishers’ foray into the area of literature. The decreative principle recovered from the women writers is used here to understand the dynamics of these ‘comings’. All the publishing enterprises I mentioned in the Introduction as belonging to this group are not going to be featured here due to paucity of space. I take for special study, a house each specialising in Translation, Children’s literature, periodical showcasing of literature in the magazine format, and periodical publishing of Literary Reviews – Katha, Tulika Publishers, The Little Magazine and The Book Review.
Katha’s existence as a publisher has been rooted in the belief tha t the publisher is an activist who moves between and among languages and cultures. In choosing ‘translation’ and ‘children’s publications’ as its main areas of activity, Katha has striven to crack the illusion of power harboured by many languages in India, most importantly English. The story of Katha began with its founder Geeta Dharmarajan discovering the ubiquity of stories in India. She saw how stories help us look at life obliquely, to learn vicariously about inter-personal relationships. The question she asked herself was: Can the story help us, as members of a larger society, to foster in ourselves a sense of equity and fair play, an ability for discussion and understanding, a predilection for compassion and true empathy, for responsive and responsible citizenship? There she found the scope of literary translation in India; it struck her that India’s genius lies in her stories, and that if good translations were made available, the story could indeed connect the country.
Katha’s publication focuses on ‘story’ because of its belief in the bepower of arts and culture initiatives in advancing harmony and respect tween en communities and between countries/regions. Arts and Literature as a viable means of perpetuating cross border cultural diplomacy has been the major thrust of Katha’s publication programme. Geeta Dharmarajan strikes at the heart of ‘decreation’ when she says: ‘We’ve abdicated from our role as storytellers, leaving mythmaking to the people who have the voice and the power. So the story has been robbed from the makers of it – the ordinary people – who lapse into a culture of silence. We have given away the power to those who have a Voice, voice to those who have power. So the question – ‘Can our stories give us a counter culture that will bring us the freedom to choose?’ The bhakti poets of a thousand years ago, showed us the way. And story today, the best of them, take us on this route of discovery in intangible ways.”
That is how Katha arrives at the concept of ‘Cul turelinking through stories’, which sees a translated story as developing not just bilingualism in students, but also make the learning of compassion and passion, responsiveness and responsibleness, easier. At Katha, cross/horizontal culturelinking refers to using translations to culturelink people living in different linguistic regions. Its vertical culturelinking works towards enhancing understanding among people who belong to different strata of society. It helps deepen the understanding within the caste/class/ grouping within each language/culture, and enhances the value/ self-value of the individual student in the classroom. Historical culturelinking, on the other hand, builds connections and collaborations across time and space.
Katha has consistently shown positive results in underserved communities with women and children. Geeta Dharmarajan has many ‘C’s’ which have helped her through this journey: Children, Communities, Creativity, Curiosity, Critical Thinking, Commitment. Katha’s building bricks till today come from a whole lot of people who believe that stories can create a new India that celebrates differences and yet allows us to remember that we are a single people, as also from a strong belief in the entrepreneurship of children, youth and adults living in poverty.
In 1992, Geeta Dharmarajan put in place KREAD [Katha Relevant Education for All-round Development] whose early learning kit came in 1993 with a framework to hone the social, personal, intellectual, cultural and environmental awareness of children. Katha got a major learning from the Babri Masjid issues as played out in the Govindpuri slums where it used to run its schools. From that came Katha’s effort to start mediation courses for teachers, to turn each one into a counsellor of sorts. In 2000, Katha introduced the concept of ASBL – Active Story Based Learning – into its schools with its story pedagogy, story pathways, and story stations.
Even as it depends heavily on the story, Katha has also explored the benefits of online technologies and gaming for educational purposes. It brought computers and Internet into its schools in 1995, and in 2001, started the Katha InfoTech and eCom School, KITES, which introduced students of all ages – preschoolers to highschoolers – to software and hardware. These schools develop programmes and have worked with institutions like the MIT, IIT and others. The students have used many online technologies, done video conferences, used the email, and designed websites together with students in the UK – without even knowing much English. Katha has also used simulation games in the Katha School of Entrepreneurship: Students are put on imagined boards to take decisions for an organisation. The students in Katha preschools learn entrepreneurship through games they play. The K-SMS that started in 2008, is a short messaging system used to send out questions to students. The first right answers get an extra 30 minutes with a teacher of their choice! Katha uses this mainly for students who are in Grades X and XII and appearing for their school leaving certificate exams.
Katha sees the civil society as a major stakeholder in all that it does, and believes that a good society builds horizontal and vertical trust. It makes the citizenry work for the larger good by giving space for dialogue and discussion, for cooperation and volunteerism, for responsible, responsive behaviour. Every child and youth in Katha schools is looked at as a change agent, a social entrepreneur. They illustrate how a strong and seamless education based on ‘story in translation’ can break the double bind of lack of knowledge of India’s multi-dimensional culture and low levels of English knowledge. This entrepreneurship helps them realise their full potential; makes them art of the contributing youth bank. Dharmarajan calls Katha a ‘subversity” where every idea can work to break the social, cultural, economic stereotype.
While the country is fast getting infected with hatred, across religious and racial lines, tolerance is a state of mind that Katha encourages in its schools in an effort to diffuse conflict and violence. But Katha understands that, for this to happen systematically, it needs to help change existing paradigms, and for this it has tried to help universities reinvent themselves as “inclusive” learning organisations and to foster colleges and institutions as civil society collaborative spaces. With the motto, ‘Uncommon Creativities for a Common Good’, Katha Academic Centres in various colleges and Universities and Katha utsavs and colloquia have been efforts in this direction since 1991. Through time, the organisation has gathered around 5000 Friends of Katha and a growing pool of community activists and literary enthusiasts that support its efforts. Its constant striving is for greater reach and impact amongst teachers and students, policy makers and the corporate sector so a common public sphere can be created. This would be a meeting place for students, writers and scholars; storytellers, folk and contemporary artists and community activists from India and abroad.
Katha, through its publishing, has brought to the reader, stories from 21 Indian languages, including English. For all is programmes, it focuses on languages, cultures and translations, and offers the readers, fiction and oral traditions from India’s many linguistic cultures. As for those on the road to literacy, the story lures them to the beauty of the written word. Geeta Dharmarajan asserts: “We are storytellers!”
When Radhika Menon started Tulika publishers, it was another decreative mode of connecting the children of India in a huge network of stories. Naturally plurilingusitc exercises became a core operational area in Tulika’s investment in India’s future.
Tulika is an independent publishing house producing books for children. Its logo is the common crow, ‘a bright, busy, intelligent bird, with a great sense of family — and an unmissable part of the sights and sounds of India.’ Tulika’s focus is to give children images of India; images that go on to show how all parts of this world come together to make it a diverse and dynamic whole, a changing yet changeless continuum. Tulika’s publishing programme, therefore, involves and draws inspiration from authors and illustrators sensitive to these issues, thus making their own work a site of decreation.
Through pictures and words, Tulika’s books offer children opportunities to experience several worlds — of people, places, animals, birds, trees, colours, shapes, ideas. They include bilingual picture books, wordbird books, poetry books, under-the banyan experiences, paperback fiction, classics in translation , ‘think about’ books, Gandhi books, fact + fiction books , myths, read + colour books, green books, where-I-live books, looking at art, in focus books, your companion books, non-sense books, and resource books .
Tulika has an amazing range. From the strong, clear lines of folk-toy based illustrations that introduce concepts of line and circle to letters of the alphabet hidden intriguingly within objects; from sound words that capture the tumult of stormy visuals to wordbirds which streak across pages familiarising children with strange words from different languages; from folktales coloured with local art forms to ecology lessons through nostalgic watercolour memoirs or gripping adventure stories; from history to geography blending in narrative and picture. From the time it began functioning in 1996, the variety at Tulika has continued to grow.
Bilingual books and translations carry forward Tulika’s celebration of the multilingual Indian society. Currently all Tulika titles are available in English, and some in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi and Gujarati. These books reflect a world peopled by the many and the few, the small and the big, the same and the different, speaking different languages, of different faiths, in myriad colours, all connected to each other by the past, the present, and the hope for the future.
The Little Magazine
Antara Dev Sen was Senior Editor with The Hindustan Times, New Delhi, when she went to Oxford as a Fellow with the Reuter Foundation. She founded TLM when she returned to India, and along with Pratik Kanjilal who joined her as co-editor and publisher, raised TLM to be South Asia’s only professionally produced independent print magazine devoted to essays, fiction, poetry, art and criticism. Kanjilal was Chief Operating Officer of Indian Express Online Media before he joined Sen and TLM.
It is interesting to see why two successful journalists left their well paying jobs and began a rather strenuous and lonely journey of publishing such a magazine as TLM. The magazine was conceived as a dialogue – a platform which would carry important work in the world languages along with the best of contemporary writing in the South Asian languages. The magazine came out from the belief that there readers who look for something more than what mainstream publishing provide them. So TLM is also the only publication around to offer full-length novellas and film and drama scripts, complete with cameraand stage directions. Besides, it is not India-specific and addresses a community which is more easily defined in terms of mindspace rather than in purely geographical terms.
The editors of TLM believe that in India, like elsewhere in the world, the function of media has changed dramatically – or perhaps catastrophically. Let me quote the TLM objectives to showcase the ‘decreation’ inherent in its publishing act: “Newspapers and magazines, once independent witnesses, are now mere conduits for the single, approved and flawlessly inflected voice booming from the apex of the pyramid of power. Meanwhile, the reality which they had originally set out to depict is being covered far better in other media, in languages other than English. It is available in fiction, theatre, film, essays, poetry and documentary. These are forms that the mainstream, in its search for the guaranteed watertight business plan, has taught itself to shun. In the absence of a culture of translation, it has also not been available to the rest of the world. And so there was a need – though usually unfelt – for an independent publication which could offer this material in a world language.”
This decreative vision is evident in the naming of the magazine, too. The 20th century had seen ‘little magazines’ becoming landmarks in the cultural and political life of several nations, most notably the United States, the United Kingdom and India. They were typically published, with less rather than more regularity, on the cheapest paper imaginable, on presses run by printer’s devils, on tiny budgets which usually came out of someone’s personal savings. Their editors, who had no particular publishing expertise, ran them on pure fire, for want of anything better. They wanted to change the world, and TLM chose its masthead in celebration of that fire.
Inspired thus, the TLM team set up the magazine in May 2000, funded completely by personal savings of it editors and well wishers. It was a quiet launch, though writers of the order of Noam Chomsky, Amartya Sen (Antara’s father), Ashis Nandy and Martha Nussbaum wrote in order to support the venture. As in the cases of Katha, Tulika Publishers, Tara, and many of the manifest houses of the Muse Shakti in publishing, we see that the idea of reclaiming the ‘original creative fire’ which was long put out at the altar of the ‘actual’ world is the inspiration behind each TLM issue, that is dedicated to a theme/cause.
In the first year of publication, TLM decided neither to solicit advertising nor to do any activity for publicity. The former because the editors wanted the bimonthly magazine to evolve its identity without pressure from advertisers; the latter because it believed in personal endorsements and word-of-mouth publicity. Today TLM enjoys influence and readership totally out of proportion with its circulation figures. There has also been significant media attention – which was unsolicited. And TLM’s ordinary subscribers, remain its most committed marketing executives, like the Friends of Katha.
The Book Review
The Book Review, a monthly journal of reviews and articles, was founded as early as 1976, and provides critical, in-depth reviews of books published in India and abroad on a variety of subjects – social sciences, humanities, fiction, management, environment, art, culture, science and children’s literature. The journal has carved out a niche for itself by focussing on the important work being done in the Indian languages through reviews in English. Since its inception, it has regularly published special issues covering works in the various Indian languages, and since 2001, special issues on books from other parts of South Asia, too. The latest additions to these are the special issues on children’s books: The Book Review brings out a special issue of reviews of children’s book every year in November. With Chandra Chari and Uma Iyengar as editors, the journal has now a discerning and committed readership in India and abroad.
The main objective of The Book Review Literary Trust set up in October 1989, with Chandra Chari, Uma Iyengar and Chitra Naryanan as founder trustees is to disseminate and spread amongst the public, information about advances in knowledge and books, for which the Trust undertakes activities including publications, exhibitions, seminars, institution of awards and fellowships etc.
The Book Review Literary Trust is a non-political, ideologically non-partisan organisation and seeks to encourage and reflect all shades of intellectual opinions and ideas. Just like TLM and Katha, this Trust Also depends on the support of literary minded people to continue and expand its activities. Being a non-commercial organisation in its Constitution and temperament, the Trust welcomes contributions that would help in achieving its stated objectives.
A grant from the Ford Foundation (1991-1995) has helped The ( Book Review to subsidise important publications in the areas of environment, contemporary history and politics, women studies and international affairs. It continues the subsidy programme with the interest from the corpus, and negotiates with publishers to reduce the jacket price to make it accessible to students and scholars. Over sixty titles have so far been subsidised thus. The Book Review promotes books in Indian languages through critical reviews in English. Special issues focussing on particular languages have been brought out. It also intends setting up an Indian Language Centre-cum-Databank to promote greater awareness of works being published in various states and facilitate translation activity to make it a bridge linking the various facets of India’s rich literary heritage.
The Book Review Literary Trust has also launched a Translations Project to bring out tracts and treatises from the ancient and medieval periods, especially Sanskrit, Urdu and Persian texts to facilitate research, as there is an urgent need to tap indigenous material for research. The works under this project include Saraswativijayam by Potheri Kunhambu, a 19th century writer from a lower caste, translated from the Malayalam by Dilip Menon; Kanyasulkam by Gurajada Venkata Appa Rao, a 19th century play that deals not only with the evil practice of bride-price, but also with the inter-related social issues such as child marriage, widow marriage, and the ‘nautch question’, translated from the Telugu by C. Vijayasree and T. Vijay Kumar; On The Threshold: Songs of Chokhamela, a collection of 54 songs of the 14th century low caste poet translated from the Marathi by Rohini Mokashi-Punekar; and Kapal Kundala set around the 1604-1605, when the Mughal state was still subduing the newly acquired province of Bengal, and which weaves together events that take place across two cultural worlds.
Just as the publishing houses discussed in this section manifest a decreative spirit in showcasing literature that provides the negative knowledge of the ‘actual’, The Book Review provides a signal service to book lovers and scholars all over the country, including the small mofussil towns where access to the latest publications is difficult.
1 Derrida’s essay “What is Relevant in Translation?” attributes the meaning `seasoning’ to ‘relevance’, as `relever in French is a cooking term, which means `seasoning’. Derrida emphasises three aspects of ‘seasoning’ — its paradoxical negation of the original taste even as it retains the remembrance of the original taste. This negation/remembrance is fructified in an ‘elevation’ of taste, which is the ultimate relevance of all seasoning, and all translations, too. I hold that this sense of ‘elevation’ is the relevance of all de-creative art, too.
Not to Conclude….
I have attempted here to focus on women publishers who have chosen to publish literary writing and children’s literature in order to revitalise the world of thought and ideas in the country. As a theoretical prologue to the study of their work is recovered a seminal trait of the best of literary writings — decreation, a counter creativity which manifests itself through a negative knowing of the ‘actual’ world. The foresight inherent in the decreative vision of these publishers becomes apparent in their choice to showcase literature in translation and children’s literature. As Geeta Dharmarajan brings to our attention, perhaps these are the two sites from where maximum culturelinking is possible. Through translation of stories from a sister culture, these publishers not only showcase the story itself as negative knowledge of our ‘actual’ late capitalist world, but ‘translation’ as the only mode of entering the negative axis. On the one side, we see the efforts of these publishers to bring out earlier writings in translation, and on the other, their hope for the future in their investment in children’s literature. This janus-faced creativity is the hallmark of Muse Shakti in Indian women’s publishing today.
As Susie Tharu and K. Lalita observe in their Introduction to the 2-volume Women Writing in India,” Colonial restructurings of gender and the curricular institutionalisation of literature, both worked to undermine the authority of Indian literatures and undercut the societies that gave rise to them. On the face of it, Orientalist scholarship, which ‘retrieved’ and put into circulation many classical Sanskrit and Persian texts, would appear to have reauthorised Indian literature and reaffirmed the significance of an Indian tradition. But …it was a highly restructured version of the past that emerged in the Orientalist framework….One of the consequences of reaffirming the high brahminical image in the context of a history that was ostensibly in the decline was the marginalisation of the more recent literatures as well as the literatures that emerged from historically changing nonbrahmin and secular contexts” (Tharu and Lalita 11).1
It is here that the intervention of the women publishers by using translation as a mode to recover texts steeped in various counter cultures becomes seminal. It unearths many a voice of confidence either steeped in orality or flung into oblivion by the mainstream culture industry, and reveal for the sake of the future generations, the complex and heterogenous narratives at work in the Indic cultural matrix.
As an illustration of how the decreative energy embedded in literary works becomes a more sustainable inspiration to the publishers who choose to publish literature rather than activist content alone, I present nine sample poems here. Though they are random selections, I Invest limitless hope in them – I hope they would evoke the richness of two and a half millennia of women’s writing in India, as also all literature/ s with what is referred to here as ‘decreative content’. Gathered from the Buddhist era (circa 6th Century BCE), the Tamil Sangham period (circa 2nd Century CE), the Bhakti movement (10th to 171” Century CE), the Nationalist Period (196-20th Century CE) and the present times, these pieces must give us some insights into the dynamics of politics and poetics playing in the near incredible continuum of literary writings by Indian women.
I rely on poetry here, as its lean and divisible form offers ergonomic samples when one is pressed for space. Besides, my reading tells me that poetry is the ripest site of decreation. These poems have been collected from linguistic cultures as varied as Pali, Tamil, Marathi, Kashmiri, Hindi and English. The contemporary poems are all in English, as the primary focus of study in this monograph is Indian women’s Interventions in English language writing and publishing. This is also hoped to reveal the decreative continuity of various women’s writing traditions in India that defy the ‘created’ his-stories and constructed hierarchies of languages.
So free I am, so gloriously free,
free from three petty things —
from mortar, from pestle,
and from my twisted lord,
freed from rebirth and death I am,
and all that has held me
down is hurled away.
Mutta, circa 6th Century BCE
(Translated from Pali by Uma Chakravarty and Kumkum Roy)
Woman well set free!
How free I am, How wonderfully free, from kitchen drudgery.
Free from the harsh grip of hunger,
And from empty cooking pots,
Free too of that unscrupulous man,
The weaver of sunshades.
Calm now, and serene I am,
All lust and hatred purged.
To the shade of the spreading trees I go
And contemplate my happiness.
Sumangalamata, circa 6th Century BCE
(Translated from Pali by Uma Chakravarty and Kumkum Roy)
The two Buddhist poems above illustrate how the idea of liberation, not the quest for it, but its very achievement, was not unknown to Indian women as far back as 6th Century BCE. In the first poem, Mutta’s new knowing begins with a spontaneous negation of the categories into which she was born/created. She begins by talking, precisely, of the material categories from which she has gained her glorious freedom. The ‘method’ she follows here evidently owes to her understanding of Buddhism as an acceptable means of detachment from unwanted ties, which is an axially negative knowing of the social order of her times. But what makes this a decreative poem is the sudden inspiration that follows, through which she achieves a transcendence of her self-consciousness. Surprising the reader and herself, she leaps into the freedom beyond birth and rebirth. Her spiritual awakening here is a seamless movement along an axis negative to the ‘actual’ world, to go farther away from the already ‘created’ religio-cultural madness channeled methodically through people such as her “twisted Lord”.
In the second poem, Sumangalamata too decreates herself through a negative knowing of her earlier life of lust and hatred. Isn’t this woman who rejects the ‘weaver of the sunshades’ by going to the shade of a tree to contemplate her happiness, a more visionary activist than the twentieth century woman who demanded nothing more than a room of her own? This is the critical reality Mutta and Sumangalamata offer us through their pathbreaking decreative acts.
Like the loose earth
slurping up the rain,
my heart, you linger
in this deluge of desire,
longing for the impossible.
Your struggle is rewarded,
if someone comes
to quench your thirst, and
embraces you the way the child monkey
on the tall tree clings to his mother.
Avvayar circa 2nd Century CE
(English version of the poem from Kurunthogai by Rizio Yohannan Raj)
Avvayar’s poetry belongs to the Akam tradition of Tamil Sangham period (circa 200 BCE-300 CE). Akam poetry speaks of the inner landscapes of love. It locates love in specific geographies such as fertile mountainsides, desert lands etc. In this poem of intense desire, the decreative narrative voice wants to attain the unattainable. The loose earth is drunk and intoxicated by the rain, but is not yet satiated. The lover’s heart ails from the same interminable ache. Her struggling heart will find some respite, only with the arrival of the one whose intense embrace is as tight as the child monkey’s grip on his mother’s body. The sudden shifting of the imagery seems to have no method, but its logic of emotion ironically distances it from the ‘actual’ world and makes it fit for the world of art. This inexhaustible longing for what is beyond an ‘actual’ individual’s creative potential and capability of achievement is indeed the core of decreation.
Cast off all shame,
and sell yourself
in the marketplace;
can you hope
to reach the Lord.
Cymbals in hand,
a veena upon my shoulder,
I go about;
who dares to stop me?
The pallav of my sari
falls away (A Scandal!);
yet will I enter
the crowded marketplace
without a thought.
Jani says, My Lord,
I have become a slut
to reach Your home.
(Translated from the Marathi by Vilas Sarang)
The colours of the Dark One have penetrated Mira’s
body; all the other colors washed out.
Making love with the Dark One and eating little,
those are my pearls and my carnelians.
Meditation beads and the forehead streak,
these are my scarves and my rings.
That’s enough feminine wiles for me.
My teacher taught me this.
Approve me or disapprove me: I praise
the Mountain Energy night and day.
I take the path that ecstatic human beings
have taken for centuries.
I don’t steal money, I don’t hit anyone.
What will you charge me with?
I have felt the swaying of the elephant’s shoulders;
and now you want me to climb
on a jackass? Try to be serious.
(English version from the Bra] original by Robert Bly)
Janabai’s and Mira’s devotion, like many other poets in the Bhakti tradition, makes them radical sannyasins, in whose figures one finds a commingling of imagination and activism. They travel along the negative axis, the “path that ecstatic human beings have taken for centuries”, and ‘experience’ the miraculous side of life to which their fellow beings have no access. Both Janabai and Mira do the Unacceptable’ – going to the marketplace like a slut, crossing the borders of feminine modesty, or confronting the members of a powerful family to tell them that their approval is inconsequential. They tell us that ‘actual’ is nothing but humdrum. Anything extraordinary has to move away from the ‘actual’, the ‘normal’ and the ‘acceptable’. Hence they transcend the ‘actual’ human experience of ‘climbing on the jackass’, to feel the grand sway of the elephant’s shoulders, thus exercising their selves in a splendid decreation.
I did not come on this earth as a seed,
To fall in the circle of births,
I am not the elements
Earth, water, fire, air and ether
I am beyond the primordial universal self and the individual self,
I am the Supreme Consciousness.
Rupa Bhavani, (1621-1721)
(Translated from the Kashmiri by Jankinath Kaul Kama!)
Rupa Bhavani, a true follower of the inimitable Kashmiri Bhakti poet Lal Ded (Lalleswari), is at her decreative best in this poem of transcendence. She defies her own birth, and her ‘actual’ life to yield herself to this decreation. Her decreative poetry offers us the ‘relevant’ meta-text wherein she elevates her ordinary existence as a woman in the world to the level of Supreme Consciousness.
Like a serpent to the calling voice of flutes,
Glides my heart into thy fingers, O my Love!
Where the night-wind, like a lover, leans above
His jasmine-gardens and sirisha-bowers;
And on ripe boughs of many-coloured fruits
Bright parrots cluster like vermilion flowers.
Like the perfume in the petals of a rose,
Hides thy heart within my bosom, O my love!
Like a garland, like a jewel, like a dove
That hangs its nest in the asoka-tree.
Lie still, O love, until the morning sows
Her tents of gold on fields of ivory.
Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) “Indian Love Song”
Beneath the lush lines that evoke a sense of forgetful lust, Sarojini Naidu’s decreative act in the ‘Indian Love Song” presents us with two contrasting pictures. One of motion proposed by the woman and the other of stillness proposed by the man. The woman calls herself a gliding serpent, going where the voice of the flute calls her, while the man wants to hide her within his bosom, an inanimate, yet prized, object of beauty – a garland, a jewel. Naidu privileges the rawness of desire in the woman’s voice by placing her voice first, thus achieving a structural decreation, too. How subtly the negation of the still and beautiful ‘bharateeya nari` is achieved here! And, through that negation, this decreative act connects itself to the bhakti tradition of the radical sannyasins, Mira and Jana, who reject their objectification through an elevated exercise of love. In Sarojini Naidu’s double-edged act is latent, a prophetic comment on the anxiety of gendering the infant Indian nation would soon witness – the tension between what a woman truly is and how she is perceived by our celebrated democracy. Wasn’t this decreative poem a plea to the emerging Indian nation to critique the way history had been created and perpetuated by the ‘male’?
Don’t write in English, they said, English is
Not your mother-tongue. Why not leave
Me alone, critics, friends, visiting cousins,
Every one of you? Why not let me speak in
Any language I like? The language I speak,
Becomes mine, its distortions, its queernesses
All mine, mine alone.
It is half English, half Indian, funny perhaps, but it is honest,
It is as human as 1 am human, don’t
You see? It voices my joys, my longings, my
Hopes, and it is useful to me as cawing
Is to crows or roaring to the lions, it
Is human speech, the speech of the mind that is
Here and not there, a mind that sees and hears and Is aware.
Kamala Surayya Das (1934-2009), From “An Introduction”
Kamala Das’ decreative Introduction of herself attaches itself to the tradition of ‘queerness’ set against the ‘actual’ world. The funny, neither-here-nor-there (half-English half Indian) speech of this poet cuts across time to find its kindred spirit in Mira Bai’s transcendental madness, Jana bai’s slut-like abandon. Here, her queer vision offers not only a fluidity of identity to the writing subject, but it also equips her to see, and hear and become aware of her ‘true’ becoming beyond the ‘actual’ woman.
The blue jays and the female cardinal
Take turns at the feeder.
All morning I watch them.
My mind is like green tea —
My mind is so clear
And satisfied as if
I had completed the poem
That has been troubling me for weeks.
Sujata Bhatt (1956- )
“Montauk Garden with Stones and Water”
This curious poem by Sujatha Bhatt connects itself across space, time, language and culture to Sumangalamata who contemplates her happiness by going into the shade of nature. There is no end to watching the birds, who ‘do not sow or reap’ as we do in our ‘actual’ lives. If Sumangalamata’s decreative act was a negation of the patriarchal order of her times, and an elevation into the realms of spiritual happiness, Sujatha Bhatt’s effort is to transcend the strife that fills the mind of a contemporary poet who is also a traveler on the fast track. Her literally decreative non-action in the face of the obsessive-compulsive action on the ‘actual’ track of life here acquires the spiritual potential of Gandhi’s non-cooperation. Her slowing down to watch the birds feed lends her voice the same decreative strength of Mira’s that refuses to be frightened by the consequences of which the world reminds her.
I’ll tell you this in advance –
You who will be enclosed in my flesh, your rhythms
Mine, our hands like a thousand comets descending
Towards pleasure, your sweat becoming my skin,
Listen: All this I want, and more.
Yet in your passion, do not scar me.
Do not split my lip, nor stifle speech.
Do not force my cervix out of shape
Nor ram my individuality.
I am parched. Riven
By longing, caked by the long dust of denial.
And yet I’ll come to you like the first rain,
Fragrant and trusting.
Priya Sarukkai Chabria
“She Says to Her Lover” from Dialogue I
Priya Sarukkai Chabria says her collection Dialogue I is a tribute to the mode of akam poetry, most of which was written by men in the narrative voices of women – the nayika, her mother, nurse, friend. There were of course a few women writers like Avvai and Nanmullai. The male Tamil Sangham poets imagined the woman in intense love proclaiming her desire unabashedly in her dialogues with others. Priya Sarukkai Chabria attains a negative remembrance of the male Tamil writer’s poetic creation by juxtaposing her individuality with her longing. This comes from the decreative insight that freedom and love are not anti-polar as the practical world would place them to be. The mixing of images in this poem is another fine instance of decreation. She is at once the parched earth, caked by the long dust of denial, and the first rain that will quench the thirst of the arid earth. As the opposites are in herself, the transcendence of their conflict is also within herself. She decreates herself thus in love, offering us a picture of the self that is not touched by bitterness, activism that has not turned sour. Indeed, a `relevant’ picture!
I walk in her clothes
Laughing inside, relieved
Of the burden of being what one wears
Since in my mother’s clothes
I am neither myself nor my mother…
From “in my mother’s clothes”
Anjum Hasan, a representative of the young generation of poets writing in English in India today, is here talking of a freedom that is beyond the contemporary politics of identity. I see her mother’s clothes connecting her to two comparable traditions of creativity. One, that of the Vidooshaka, the court jester. This wise fool connects with a lot of such figures who do not really ‘fit in’ the mould – the Shakespearean Fool, the holy fool who lingered outside the ecclesiastical towers, the mad Bhakati poet, the wandering minstrel, the parivrajaka. Through her attempt to transcend the given/created identity, Anjum Hasan establishes yet another connection with the 2500 years of decreative women’s writing, the samples of which we have been examining.
These samples are presented here to illustrate various ways in which ‘decreation’ becomes manifest in literary writings. Sometimes it defies the societal norms, some other times, it helps one transcend the limitations of the human frame. There are instances when one transgresses oneself, contradicts oneself, challenges oneself. To make one’s publishing decisions vis-à-vis such literature is also to align one’s belief system and ideology with an oblique means, rather than the most obvious means. Following are the stories that publishers Geeta Dharmarajan, Radhika Menon and Chandra Chari tell us, which will give us greater insights into what made them decreate themselves in founding the organisations they lead today.
1 Women Writing in India: 600 BC to the Present, 2 Vols. eds. Susie Thant and K Lalita, New York: Feminist Press, 1991.