|Samyukta – A Journal of Women’s Studies in association with the National Book Trust, New Delhi organized a Malayalam Women Writers’ Meet at the Government Guest House, Thycaud, Thiruvananthapuram on March 31, 2004. The function was well-received and was graced with the presence of some of the best-loved women writers as well as other distinguished people like
Dr. B. Ekbal –the Honourable Vice Chancellor of the University of Kerala,
Dr. K. Ayyappa Paniker- poet, critic and former head of the Institute of English, University of Kerala, Sri.T.N.Jayachandran – former Vice Chancellor of the University of Calicut, retired IAS officer and writer of repute, Smt.Sugathakumari – one of the most eminent poets in Malayalam and the former Chair person of the Kerala Women’s Commission, and Smt.Padma Ramachandran- former Chief Secretary to the Govt. of Kerala and an enthusiastic worker in the field of Women’s Studies.
The Writers’ Meet was inaugurated by Smt. Sugatha Kumari. Dr. Sreedevi K. Nair introduced the topic and moderated the discussion. Well-known women writers in Malayalam such as Chandramati, Lalitha Lenin, Savitri Rajeevan, K.R.Meera, C.S.Chandrika, K.Rekha, B.M.Zuhra, Sreebala K. Menon, Asha Krishnan and Indu Menon participated in the event.
Sugathakumari: Dear friends, I have great pleasure in being part of this august gathering. Today, we often see women’s writing treated as a separate entity and its need being critically examined. I feel that quality is the ultimate benchmark as far as literature is concerned. A genuinely good work will outlive the ravages of time irrespective of the author’s gender. Gender never can or must be a factor for receiving any special consideration. We must not seek any reservation in this field. Our creations will be accepted when our expression rises to a level where we can produce quality stuff.
Language is full of strange quirks. Recently at the venue of the Asian Women Writers’ Conference in Delhi, I came across a passage which describes our situation. It is heart-rending and yet humorous. It is extremely important that along with the capacity to grieve and rage at the injustices of life, we must also be able to laugh away a lot. Let me read a small paragraph: ‘Dear sirs, man to man, manpower, craftsman, working man, thinking man, man in the street, fellow countryman, history of mankind, one man show, man in his wisdom,statesman, forefathers, masterful, masterpiece, old masters, brotherhood of man, faith of fathers, yours fraternally, amen!’ May we be able to understand where we stand.
Man is guardian, friend and colleague but he is the enemy and the child as well. We are often the victims of man’s cruelty. Yet, aren’t we also responsible? We form more than half the population of the world and thus the majority. Maybe, we are a little self-centred. We dismiss things saying that it is a man-made world. Our submissive attitude which restricts us ensures that we are unable even to shed tears for others. It is not fair to blame man alone. For instance, we have the recent water crisis. Didn’t we know that this problem was coming? Shouldn’t we have been the first to sit up, take notice and act? Even today, our voices are not united. They lack the strength to tear down barriers imposed by the male dominated society. The current agony of Mother Earth is the result of her children’s inadequacy. With the prayer that we, Mother Earth’s children gain the strength to raise her from the depths of degradation, I inaugurate this Women Writers’ Meet.
Sreedevi K. Nair: This is a rare occasion. We have with us today, many women writers much loved by the Malayalam reading public. We await in eagerness to hear them speak of their writings, their process of writing and of themselves. But it may be good to have as a preface, a brief presentation of the current scenario of women writing in Malayalam.
Writing need not be a gender-specific activity. Writers of either gender are part of the same world. The problems they face too are often, much the same. Merciless deforestation, the drought that parches up the tongue and body of man and earth, the violation of the rights of minorities, the way ideology and practice part ways at the thin razor edge of action – all these are concerns of both men and women, of women writers as well as men writers, of the society as a whole. Yet, it remains a fact that the problems faced by women are subtly different from those of male experience. This is so because the birth and evolution of each experience itself is rooted in the particular politics of power relations. Truth is different for the rich and the poor, for the gentiles and the low castes, for man and woman. Even within what could be broadly termed as the woman’s experience, there could be strong or subtle differences. The experience of the poor or the subaltern woman may not be the same as that of the rich or the powerful woman. Samyukta has always tried to find space for the polyphony of women’s voices and experiences and to stress their infinite variety in an effort to recognize and acknowledge them. The present seminar too, is such an attempt to celebrate the multivoicedness of women-writing in Malayalam.
Through centuries, the woman has been marginalized in Malayalam literature as a mere object of inspiration. But now, when she has started wielding the pen, she has manipulated her subject position to self – consciously create and affirm her identity. Through their writings, our women writers have achieved three important goals.
1) They have recaptured the past by cleansing individual/social memory. Revision of myths and legends which have a strong hold on the conscious/unconscious mind is used as an effective means for achieving this. The attempts of Sara Joseph in Thaikulam and Asoka, of Lalitha Lenin in Draupadi and Gandhari, of K.B. Sreedevi in Shilarupini – are all examples of this.
2) They question the sexual politics of the present by deliberately tearing up the traditional and hackneyed presentations of women in earlier works – the all-sacrificing mother, the eternally ill-treated wife, the bereft lady-love who courts death and the like. Priya in Sithara’s Agni, Mable Simon in Chandramathi’s Janakeeya Kodathi and Meena in her story Lucifer, are all characters who challenge such age-old images.
They present the possibility of a better future for women through their works by imbibing the changes wrought by time and creating characters with verve and self confidence. These characters take bold steps towards realizing a futuristic dream. But the woman writer’s attempts to achieve the above mentioned goals result in a clear disjuncture from the paths trodden by her predecessors. The society gets greatly perturbed when women flout convention, when they fly in the face of custom and pose questions that defy answers. It is this that often makes the society react unfavourably to women’s writing. In the preface to her book Paapathara, published in 1990, Sara Joseph wrote ‘When the Malayalam women writers went about writing devotional hymns like the Kummi and Thiruvathira songs, when they whined and snivelled and wrote of tender love, no one responded. But when they began to question the politics of power, when they got ready for war with the sexual politics, Saraswathy Amma, Rajalekshmi and Madhavikutty were stoned and wounded. The threat still continues…’
Will all those who are blessed with the talent, take to writing if they are provided with just a piece of paper and pencil? Can’t think so. Writing is the realization of the self and the self is what filters through each individual’s memory, experience and dream. Being a woman itself is both a personal and a social/public experience – the reason why we see both the personal and the public in the woman’s transaction of her self. Absolute freedom is necessary to perceive this complex self as well as to give expression to it. Kamala Das once asked in exasperation, ‘How can there be quality women writing here? To achieve “good” literature, a woman must be able to write from her heart. Will the Kerala society ever give her women such a freedom?’ Yes, women’s creativity is in chains here. Like the bonsai that is pruned to fit into living rooms, the constraints imposed on our women writers limit the blue skies of their creative freedom. But in spite of this stifling bondage, women’s writing has taken roots here.
Among our dear writers gathered here today, there are those who prefer to come under the general category of women writers, some who chose to call themselves feminists, others who sternly refuse that title, those who believe that politics may help in fighting exploitation, those who feel that they need no ideology to combat the ills of society and so on. We have gathered here not to establish that any one of these various stances is the right one but to celebrate the exhilarating variety of it all.
When writers rebel, the drooping eyelids of the society open up. The changes that can be wrought by the pen can be more permanent as well. Therefore, let’s wish for more works that combine women’s creativity and a strong feminine aesthetics. Let the words of our writers issue forth powerfully to form anew our dream of freedom for women as well as for all other marginalized, subaltern groups.
We are all eager to listen to our writers here. Lalitha Lenin, a poet of fame in Malayalam is deeply committed to the cause of women. She has tried her hand in Children’s Literature too. Winner of several literary awards, she is reader at the department of Library Science, University of Kerala. Let’s first invite her to share her thoughts on writing with us.
Lalitha Lenin (Writer Delegate): For many of us, writing is a passion and a necessity. Even so, all of us pass through periods of creative barrenness when we begin to doubt our ability to come up with genuine literature. Why we write is a question many of us ask ourselves repeatedly.
An in-depth probing into our writing will reveal undiscovered regions in our psyche which ought to be every author’s destination. There is no definite methodology for doing this but this is a process which takes place in every writer sooner or later. One does not write for one’s own self alone but for the whole society. Hence, exploring new levels of thought and expressing them in novel ways, is a writer’s duty. She needs to go through her own works and those of others to find new modes of expression. But only few women writers find time for that.
Sugathakumari spoke of how literature is not a gender-based activity. I wish I could say the same. But the truth is a bit different and worrying. Even as we claim that writing is gender-free, we realize that gender is a vital factor underlying our thought and language. Writing is a creative process which is greatly influenced by our perceptions which in turn depend on our experience. Our perceptions and experience form our knowledge base and act as the fertile soil for our creativity. Experience is the magic stone which transforms mere words into living creatures. But are we conscious of this? My own writing presents a very interesting instance of what usually happens to women writers. The first thirty or forty years of my life were spent without the awareness that I could think or form my own opinions about life or formulate my own concept of values, let alone engage in creative writing. Such a blissful ignorance is the lot of many of us. Women are in many ways the smallest among children. We are toys, loved and petted, yet often smashed up and thrown away without the slightest thought.
However, the situation has changed a little and the process of change needs to be studied. It was during the seventies and the eighties that self-conscious women writing which came to be referred to as ‘Pennezhuthu’ in Malayalam, first emerged. The nineties witnessed an anti-climax. ‘Pennezhuthu’ was denounced as a name for inadequacy and inferiority. Many women writers who wrote with force and vigour were brought under the label, compartmentalized and their reach was restricted. The need was then felt to make women’s writing more inclusive. But there was also a parallel trend which insisted on its retaining a separate identity. In recent times, women have accomplished the position of creative writers capable of chronicling their feelings and experiences which are different from those dictated by men. But many authors who have successfully done that have unfortunately been branded as ‘Pennezhuthukarikal’ and a great amount of such brilliant literature has been dismissed as limited and women- specific. Sara Joseph is one outstanding example for this. Of course, women’s writing has the specific aim of reaching out to women and touching the core of their psyche and I have no hesitation in saying that many of my works conform to that standard. However, when I see excellent works being marginalized, labelled as ‘pennezhuthu’ and pushed away, I feel a stab of pain and agony. I have a deep admiration for today’s young writers who are dismissive of society’s such reactions. I lack the boldness which is characteristic of them.
That there is an audience to appreciate women’s writing is a source of great joy. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of proper criticism in this field, especially a shortage of women critics. I say women critics because though we consider literature to be gender independent, the society does not view things in a neutral way. It’d be better if somebody is there to direct their vision. I have reached the fag end of my career. It has been a hectic one and I have had to work hard to balance the requirements of my career, my house-hold responsibilities and my yearning to write. Both my home and my career have been inseparable parts of my life and the thought of abandoning either of them has never occurred to me. But I have had to make a number of sacrifices and turn my back on a number of possibilities so that I could write and experience the sheer joy of doing so. When I observe what is happening to men, women, to children and to society as a whole, an intense anger, an inexplicable fervour fills my mind. A feeling of congestion and suffocation drives me to examine and scrutinize every word I write and often I feel that my words are not strong enough. It is then that I feel the need for a more powerful language. I am however, happy that a new generation of talented youngsters is emerging with potent language as their tool. Let me wind up, reposing all hopes of progress and salvation on them.
Prof. B. Hrdaya Kumari (Participant): I would like to respond to the issue of the presentation of the self, which Lalitha rightly pointed out as an important responsibility of the woman writer. But do we have a self? What is it? Do we believe in the self? Isn’t the self something that evolves and develops? There are women here ranging from their twenties to seventies. When we compare our selves to Shakespeare’s self, we realize that our selves are inferior but they fare better when pitted against that of the ‘Paingili’ (the term used to refer to soft, sentimental works in Malayalam) novelists. So, the self is something that can be determined only by using certain yardsticks. It develops through experience, through relationships, through criticism. These are three things that are important to all writers. Within everyone there is a higher consciousness that we call the pervasive universal spirit and there may also be the individual spirit. I am not speaking about those. The self I am talking about is the one that develops through relationships, through observations, through thought, through failures and through opposition. This self needs experience. It is also bound by the various limitations society imposes on it.
Also, we can gain experience only in relation to our intellect, our emotional strength and our environment. Thus, it is from experience that we gain the self. When a poet after a friend’s death writes,
‘Not even Shakespeare could have loved you more’,he has an imaginative approximation of Shakespeare’s love.
Another poet wanted to peck about like a bird in an attempt to share its experience. The process of transformation of experience is essential in the development of the creative self. Yet, the consciousness of self is effected only through experience and hence it is difficult for the young writer to realize the self. Tagore might write better about the experiences of an eight year old than she could by herself. When the zenith or limit is reached, the self can be expressed with potential. We, the elderly are waiting to hear the brave young voices of the writers who have realized their selves.
Sreedevi K. Nair: Thank you, ma’am. Today, we have with us, a clutch of young writers. Sreebala K. Menon, programme producer at the Centre for the Development of Imaging Technology (C-Dit), Thiruvananthapuram is a well-known short story writer and a columnist. Her book 19, Canal Road, was well-accepted by the reading public of Kerala. Let’s invite Sreebala to speak to us.
Sreebala K. Menon (Writer Delegate): Dear friends, I am asked to speak about my writing and my experiences as a writer. Let me give an account of one of my stories and use it to relate my way of writing. The story ‘Puttum Kadalayum’ was published by D.C.Books in its collection of short stories. It is about a pair of lovers, both of whom retain their love for each other despite their being married to their respective spouses – I’m consciously avoiding the use of the word ‘extra-marital’. They were in love before their marriages but their families prevented their union. Even after their separation through marriage, they meet each other once a year at Auroville in Pondicherry very furtively. However, when together too, they fulfill the demands of family life by regularly contacting their spouses. But to each other, they speak romantically and philosophically.
Ultimately the woman begins to yearn for something more permanent and suggests that they live as husband and wife. The man is unable to give a commitment and says that perhaps they can lead such an existence in their next life. They then begin to dream about their next birth and make plans for their life together. He says that she must wake up early in the morning and cook his favourite breakfast ‘puttum kadalayum.’ She refuses, as she dislikes getting up early. Besides, she doesn’t know to cook. Soon they begin to argue vehemently and the lady accuses the man of preferring food above her love. The man departs in silent anger when the woman sheds tears for her next life in advance.
I often wonder if I could have written in a different way if I were a man. But the truth is that for my writing, I have never felt gender to be a vital factor.I believe in writing boldly and freely. I never shy away from a topic or restrict myself because I am a woman. Gender has never, ever constrained me in writing. On other occasions- while working or traveling, I am conscious of my gender. But while writing I am totally free.
Sreedevi K. Nair: It’s a bold new voice we have listened to. Zuhra, I think is ready with a totally different narrative. She is one who entered the field of letters late but gained acceptance easily. For her first novel Kinaavu itself, she was awarded the ‘Lalithambika Antharjanam Award for Young Writers’. Wife of Dr. M.M. Basheer, former head of the department of Malayalam, University of Calicut and sister of the famous Cartoonist Mr. B.M. Gafur, Zuhra tells us that she owes her entry into literature to their loving encouragement. Let’s listen to her.
Zuhra (Writer Delegate): To listen to veterans as well as emerging talents recount their experiences as writers, is an immensely satisfying activity. Speaking of myself, it is the city of Thiruvananthapuram that made me a writer. Born in a village, my greatest ambition was to study well, to become highly educated and to be self-reliant. However, it was well nigh impossible as an educated or employed woman was unheard of in those parts- especially in the Islamic community. A woman was supposed to know only just enough to practice her religion. Any other qualification was counted a disqualification. Even though I could manage to enter the college after my schooling, it was a period of innumerable restrictions. I dreamt of being a lawyer like my brother, a wish which was always greeted with shock and frown. Marriage was never on my agenda in those days. All the same, I was married off in my teens and was brought to this city. Here, communication became tricky for me due to dialectical differences. I became silent and lonely. It was then that I started reading the classics. I began writing too, though much of it was not serious. Another favourite pastime was to visualize in my mind, the characters I had read about. I was slowly drifting into the world of writing. Thus, I am one who strayed into writing by the force of circumstances.
Later, when my children grew up and got immersed in their own worlds, I felt a deep void in my life. I needed to express myself and began to write down my thoughts. I also noted down memories. Later, I was told by my husband and brother that what I wrote read like the rough version of a novel and that it could be published if I worked a little more on it. I had never ever learnt the rules of writing before. But I worked on it and got it published. Well, that was how it all began. I often ask myself why I continue to write; what is it that is driving me.Writing was and still continues to be my door to the outer world. This freedom of expression is the greatest joy I experience.
What I do not approve of in literature is the common trend today to use writing as a propaganda tool. We have to react to injustices but using creative writing solely as a weapon for that is not advisable. The ideal plot is one which conveys the message without expressing it verbally.
To me, writing was a way of deliverance from the darkness that had enveloped my life. While I struggled in the darkness, reading and creative writing appeared like a flash of lightning, a ray of hope and a source of comfort. That I will one day be able to come up with a really good work is my greatest desire, my fondest hope and my most ardent prayer.
Sreedevi K. Nair: Zuhra would have made a good lawyer but aren’t we happy that she took to writing seriously and gave us fine stories?
Our young writer Indu Menon is here. Indu is still a student. But she enjoys great popularity as a writer. She has received many notable awards such as the ‘Janapriya Award’, ‘Ankanam Award’, ‘Uroob Award’, ‘Mathrubhumi Prize’ etc. Let’s listen to her.
Indu Menon (Writer Delegate): When I first entered society conscious of my identity as woman writer, I was troubled by the problem of expressing my ideas and thoughts in a way that its essence would be understood in its entirety. The different modes of communication which were used on different occasions left me wondering about their impact. I was constantly on the hunt for a medium which would allow me to confidently convey my ideas.
It was in such a situation that I began my first experiments in writing. These early works were fluid and rarely had a specific structure. My first attempts were to emulate the plays I saw being staged at school. I was eager to be commended and circulated my works quite freely. Soon the need for a distinctive style struck me and I began to dread any external influence. Even the slightest resemblance to another writer was anathema. Today, I know that variety counts. I also know that the ability to influence the readers is equally important.
My first story dealt with a rape victim. It was written without any knowledge of such a victim’s experiences and without my interacting with one. But many of my readers commented upon the realism of the story and wondered how one could give such a vivid account without direct experience. Although irritated at first, this taught me an important lesson. The ultimate victory of a story lies in its touching the hearts of its readers. Today, I am happy even when my works anger and irritate people because that is proof that I affect their minds.
I have made a few attempts towards attaining my dream of writing in my own unique way – in a voice that’s no body else’s; in a language that echoes none of my worthy predecessors’. In a very short time, much attention has been bestowed on me. I am thankful to everyone for that.
Sreedevi K. Nair: Thanks, Indu. Dr. Chandrika (pen name Chandramaty) will carry on the deliberations. Chandramaty needs no introduction. She is a veteran writer and the winner of many prestigious awards such as the ‘Oodakkuzhal Award’, the ‘Kerala Sahitya Academy Award’ and the ‘S.B. Award for the Best College Teacher’. An acclaimed critic and a researcher, she is Reader at the Department of English in All Saints College, Thiruvananthapuram.
Chandramati (Writer Delegate): I like the passion that Indu Menon has for new ideas and a totally new voice. She said that she does not want the shadow of other writers to fall on her works. I wish she is able to do that. In the work Anxiety of Influence, Bloom speaks of the shadow cast by the old generation writers on the new which ultimately undermines the work of the new writers. Hence it is essential to steer clear of the shadows of earlier writers. Yet, women-writing cannot help looking back to the past to shared heritages, to invisible authors who are represented and whom women writers claim as their fore-runners. This is so because women writing cannot look to the future without the support of the present or the past.
There is no need for a gender differentiation among writers. I consider the term ‘Pennezhuthu’, a kind of a label and labels lead us to limitations that are difficult to transcend, especially for a woman writer. That is why I insist that I do not want the label. While in the West, sexual politics is not related to the ideology of parties, in Kerala this is very much so and if I say that I am a ‘Pennezhuthukari’, it will be naturally assumed that I am linked to a political party or even that I am a member of one. I don’t like to advocate any party or religion through my writing. My writing is my ideology. I believe that a work has to be evaluated purely on its merit and not because its writer happens to be woman or a man, a Hindu or a Muslim, a Congress supporter or a Marxist.
Another point I wish to raise is the question of invisible and intangible censorship imposed on the woman. At times, censorship prompts the woman writer to write in spite of oppositions. As a young girl, I was a rebel. In my tales, I often presented themes that people didn’t expect a young girl to present. I wrote of extra-marital affairs, sexual matters, the problems of prostitutes and the troubles faced by twins in love with the same man. The consequent criticism and hullabaloo led me to a long eighteen years of silence after which I have surfaced. But now I acknowledge no limitations or restrictions. I have given myself the freedom to follow the way I choose and to use my voice in the manner I please. My family has placed no restrictions on me. But I often find it impossible to introduce my topics with the kind of strength that I desire. I feel invisible chains binding my hands, unseen plaster sealing my lips and dark spots distorting my vision. Whose is this chain? Whose is this plaster? From where does this invisible censorship originate? This originates from love. This might seem contradictory but it is love that allows censorship to operate in us. It’s our reluctance to hurt those who are physically, emotionally and mentally very near and dear to us through our writing that helps it succeed. I am still unsure of how best I can transcend this problem. I want to break the chains but they are invisible. I have often felt this queer hurdle to be the most difficult to surmount for women writers.
Yet another topic I want to discuss with you is the problem of originality. All that needs to be said has already been said. What can I say afresh now? So, I am playing with language as Indu Menon and others may also be doing- imposing new meanings on words, using words in a novel way and giving a new dimension to words. But this also loses its edge after a certain limit – a saturation point. After this stage, the innovative use of the words will not be noticed. This is a question faced by all of us. The pain a writer experiences on using words that have lost their edges, words that have degenerated into clichés, is one that defies communication. This is a real problem. Usually, there may be a little discussion about this in similar meetings, but that’s all. Both the speakers and the listeners forget these questions after a while. After the meeting, we depart to our homes to wash clothes, to make chapattis… We do not have women collectives. We cannot produce coffee club literature like Steele or Addison.
When a woman shakes off her routine and behaves differently, she is labeled mad. I usually return home from college by four o’ clock. Before coming here, I have left my itinerary at home so that everyone – my husband, my daughter and even the house maid knows where I am. If I tell them that I will return home only by nine o’ clock for I want to discuss literature with Lalitha Lenin, Chandrika, Indu Menon, Meera and others, they might call me mad. But if I tell them that I’ll get back by nine o’ clock because I want to go to Parthas to buy a few saris, they’ll understand and are not likely to consider me unstable.
As long as the society finds it difficult to accept that women too can go to libraries, evaluate literary works and talk knowledgeably and intelligently on their reading, they will feel bound by chains. We can escape from labels only when we are free to read, to discuss and to go on journeys in the same way as men can. I think I have shared with you some of my concerns. Thank you.
Dr. Jameela Begum (Participant): Friends, I am neither a writer nor a critic, but a teacher. I have written of women’s writing and have taught it. When Chandramaty talks of ‘pennezhuthu’ as a name that could be derogatory, I feel puzzled. Women writers say that there are limitations when women write. Is their writing limited because they write only about women? Why don’t women writers write of men? How do we see men? What do we think of them? What is the role of men in families? When women are made central characters in stories or serials, all other characters are marginalized. Is this fair? Even though women and men are not equal, unless both are present, there would be no society/family. Are women not guilty of marginalizing in that case? Is that why ‘Pennuzhuthu’ has become derogatory?
Social commitment of women writers are suspect according to some. Can’t think so if it is the inner urge which makes a woman writer write. This urge to write cannot come from a vacuum but only from society. Social problems should become central in women writing. Why are these issues pushed to the background in women writing? Women writers should write not only of their problems as women but as part of the society too.
Only if you experience or feel something deeply, can you write about it. Great men writers have represented women well. May be love creates boundaries for women writers. But can’t they transcend the boundaries by depicting the problems of the society? These are questions that have bothered me and I aim my posers at the writers who are with us.
Sreedevi K. Nair: Thank you Dr. Jameela. Savitri Rajeevan, one of our beloved poets might be able to respond to you. Besides being a noted poet, Savitri is faculty member of Sri Sankaracharya Sanskrit University. An artist too, she often succeeds in giving graphic representations through her poems.
Savitri Rajeevan (Writer Delegate): I have not mastered the knack of speaking, yet I would gladly share some of my thoughts with you. We spoke of censorship and the female experience. When we speak of experience, aren’t we speaking of the experience of a particular class of women? One speaker remarked that the experiences of one woman herself can be different on different occasions. She may experience her womanhood differently when she is traveling in a bus, when she is at school and when she is writing. But I think it is perhaps when she is writing that she is truly herself. What are the contexts in which she becomes aware of her gender and not be herself? Women writers are constantly aware of how the society views them. They can’t speak their real thoughts or record them for the censorship of love works on and on as long as they are within the framework of the family. It is only when writers move to the surrealistic world of their creativity that they can be truly themselves. That is where a writer finds space to be her real self.
Isn’t the consciousness about the body a trap? When can the woman lose her consciousness of the traps of the body? I’ll read out one of my poems titled ‘She’.
I don’t know who she is
Sreedevi K. Nair: In a poem of few lines, Savithri has aptly hit the nail on its head.
C.S. Chandrika (Writer Delegate): I am sorry that we are still discussing issues that we have been discussing three years ago. The world around us is changing fast but the fast changing world is not reflected in discussions on women writing. When I speak of my writing, I can only see it in relation with events of national and international importance, with society as a whole. We are linked to the rest of the world. My readers similarly are those whose experiences are different as women, but who share dreams and anxieties and hopes of the future. I am concerned about what I can do in this context. Whenever I think of readers, I think of those who can share my experiences even if they are located in a very distant corner of the world and not really those who are located in Kerala or Trivandrum.
There is a wider range of activities possible in the field of activism and I am an activist. I am challenged by the question of how I can prove my existence by presenting my experience that is unique. Experience, creativity and language are important for this. As an activist, I am among people and they contribute to what ultimately becomes my experience. I seek this contact. This is integral to my writing as are a number of uniquely varied experiences of love, family, sexuality and problems relating to women. When I speak of myself as a feminist or an activist, how am I placed in the social, political, literary, cultural map of Kerala? As Sara Joseph and I have often said, the repercussions of taking a public stand as a feminist are cruel. We are often cornered and attacked in discussions. We don’t argue or take a stand for personal gain. Critics and fellow women writers also have contributed to our sorrow. I read the story of my friend K.R. Meera here who presented in Shoorppanaka a feminist who refused to breast feed her baby. The story haunted me. Feminists are concerned, more concerned than others, I feel, for children. Someone asked me today if I had become less passionate about feminism since I had my baby. That is a traditional stand. I am happy with my baby and my companion but I cannot mistake this happiness as encompassing the whole world. I feel intensely and hence I express myself intensely. Without intensity, we can’t make anything heard.
Sreedevi K. Nair: Let’s listen to what Meera has to say in reply. Meera is one who has secured herself a place among the Malayalam short story writers with just a handful of stories. She works as the Chief Sub Editor of the most popular daily in Kerala, Malayala Manorama. She is recipient of the ‘Ankanam Sahitya Award’, ‘The Lalithambika Antharjanam Award for Young Writers’ and the ‘Chovvara Parameswaran Award’.
K. R. Meera (Writer Delegate): Friends, I am a novice who has published but seven stories. I would like to respond to some of the issues raised here and to the reference C.S. Chandrika made to my story, Shoorppanaka. C.S. Chandrika spoke of feminism in relation to Sara Joseph and herself. But there are many feminists in the world who are not part of the political ideology that they belong to. I myself am a feminist. At the camp organized by Ankanam, male writers who attended accused women writers of lacking courage to own up feminism. There I declared that I was a feminist. But I don’t follow laws that lay down that I must cut my hair short or discard jewellery or wear batik print sari only because I am a feminist. Feminism is a way that I choose to counter conventions, traditions and limitations the patriarchal society imposes on me. Perhaps I am, in this regard more of a feminist than many others. But when feminists themselves try to impose rules, control my thoughts and dictate what language I should use, I hesitate to call myself a feminist. The tale Shoorppanaka is one that focuses on the relationship between a mother and a ten year old daughter. The mother Anakha tells her daughter that she would recount the tale of Shoorppanaka. The mother, in her college days, was called Shoorppanaka by her class mates for this name rhymed with her real name Anakha. Anakha had firm ideas about feminism and was against marriage. She, however, got married to Rammohan and had a daughter whom she refused to breast feed. The baby was put on Lactogen to which she became an addict. The woman, according to Anakha is looked upon as breasts and so when she was diagnosed to have breast cancer which required the removal of both the breasts, she looked upon it as liberation. She was now Shoorpananka. She told her daughter that she might not be back from surgery and asked her if she desired anything. The daughter replied that she wanted to taste her mother’s milk. This was something the mother never expected and in anger, she invited her daughter to suck at her breasts. The child then says that she wanted only Lactogen. I am the daughter, the mother and the husband in that tale and it was not a reflection on any one else. I just wanted to convey that feminists sometimes forget to give others what they want.
Someone said that the mobility from the male to the female in not easy. I disagree. In 1963, in Belgium, twins were born to a couple. An accident occurred when they were just a year and a half old. The genitalia of one of the twins were mutilated and that twin was brought up as a girl after a surgery. The one brought up as a girl spent hours before the mirror and shared all the so-called weaknesses of the girl whereas the other didn’t. Gender, therefore, is not a matter of sex but one of environment.
Is there mobility between men and women? At times, there is. I do not think that I am a woman and thus feel constrained when I write. Perhaps, my training as a journalist works for me in this. I welcome responses to my work. Positive or negative, they make me feel happy at being read.
Sreedevi K. Nair: Does Journalism really help in creative writing? We’ll ask Rekha who is Sub Editor of Malayala Manorama. Rekha is one writer who is specially noted for her very perceptive representation of women. No wonder, she has won several prominent awards such as the ‘Mathrubhumi Katha Award’, ‘Grihalekshmi Award’, ‘Muttathu Varkey Award’ and the ‘Rajalekshmi Award’.
K. Rekha (Writer Delegate): Fifteen years ago, this kind of a gathering may not have materialized. This is the golden age of women writing, whatever one might say. Often people have an informed opinion on women writing. In one of Sithara’s stories titled Kalpitha Vrithantham she says that if we deal with themes like overt sexuality, religion or lesbianism we would be considered bold. This is a limitation. Critics too fall into such traps. There are realms of experience beyond these. I went to a circus recently and saw a performer on ‘The Well of Death’. I think my entire life would not be as complex as a single moment of that performer’s life. We need to explore the unexplored in the comparative simplicity of our lives. Michael Angelo criticized Da Vinci who was his contemporary saying that he could only paint but he could not sculpt figures from stone. Each person can be creative only in her/his particular medium. At one time, journalism was not the forte of women but it is proved otherwise now by people like K. R. Meera and others. I too work as a journalist with Malayala Manorama. We have to conquer the vistas that are considered out of bounds for women.
Another concern is that critics see women-writing reductively. They are like people who see the sea just as the phenomenon of high tide and low tide, unaware of the pearls and the rich coral reefs hidden in the depths. They do not plumb the depths of the visionary world in Ashitha’s work or the eco-feminism in Sara Joseph. Both are dismissed with equal unconcern – perhaps the first as a mere traditional writer and the second as a ‘pennezhuthukari’. I wish critics would accept women writing for what it really is – without contempt or favour.
Radha Sekhar (Participant): I have a comment, not a question. If we have a meeting two years hence, we should be able to talk about the greatness and uniqueness of women’s writing rather than about feminism or womanism. We are today talking about women writers based in Kerala. We need to think about women-writing from larger perspectives. As long as we can write boldly and freely of our experiences without giving way to indecency, there is no need to look back. We must think of ourselves as citizens of the world. The character in Antharjanam’s Agnisakshi broke the bonds that kept her in thrall quietly and in all dignity. I think Antharjanam is a great writer who has successfully presented what the breaking of bonds mean to a woman. But she was never called a feminist writer or thought of reductively. If the present day women writers come out with works like that, it would be a great achievement. Antharjanam’s writing was ‘pennezhuthu’ in the true sense of the term though it was never called so. But somehow, I don’t like the term and I pray that we do not use it anymore.
Sreedevi K. Nair: Asha Krishnan is ready to speak to us. One of our youngest writers, Asha too has several recognitions to her credit, like Mathrubhoomi Prize and Rajalekshmi Award.
Asha Krishnan (Writer Delegate): I have not written much but I have experienced a lot of limitations. I write only of things and events that I feel deeply about. These I carry in my mind, transform into stories, edit them and afterwards write them up. A number of women writers experience the difficulty posed by scarcity of time. They have no leisure amid their domestic and office work. Few women have time to sit down, ponder and to write. Perhaps, this is why many of them stop writing in their mid-career. Society too has imposed limitations on women writers. They have to steer clear of certain subjects. While it is alright for male writers to own up to eight lady loves or more, a woman writer cannot with the same nonchalance own up a second. Those who do so, are looked at from a different angle by the society. Women writers are also troubled by the way society reads their writings as personal narratives. I am also haunted by thoughts of originality. Whenever I take a theme, I wonder whether any one else has written about it. I long to write what others have not.
Sreedevi K. Nair: Now that all our writer delegates have spoken, we can have an open discussion.
Chandramaty (Writer Delegate): There was a comment that we are still discussing the same issues that we were harping on three years ago. It is because we are still at a loss to solve the issues raised. We have to solve the problem through discussions. Also, social commitment is required from a writer but it is wrong to think that social commitment should ooze out of every tale. Whenever some thing happens, journalists ask writers to respond. If the writer is not coming forth with her response, she is accused of having no social commitment. Should writers be machines generating automatic responses? The question needs to be debated. Our creative writing is our response. We discussed women’s writing and feminist writing. Women’s writing that is rooted in a particular ideology can be called feminist writing. But feminism is a term that has been used by people in different connotations. It is not a single unified position. When I say I am not a feminist, I am referring to the fact that I do not subscribe to a particular kind of feminism advocated by particular people. I like to have the liberty to think and work by myself. My feminism is neither a negation nor a repulsion of men; nor is it a negation of motherhood. Alice Walker opposed feminism as its ideology and modus operandi were more suited to the whites rather than the blacks. Being black and being a woman meant that they were doubly disadvantaged. They had to form a new ideology. What I say is somewhat like Walker’s stand, for I believe that the feminist theories we imported from the west cannot be applied here without changes. We need to form a new ideology that is free of religious and political frameworks. As it stands now, I can only define myself as an individualistic feminist. That’s all. Thank you.
Sulochana Rammohan (Participant): Some of the modern writers make deliberate use of difficult language. Does Indu Menon have some specific reason for the peculiar language she employs in some of her stories?
Indu Menon (Writer Delegate): In the modernist era, there was a tendency among writers to choose a difficult style of writing and to use complicated words. But now, the preferred language is one that is simple. If ever a writer uses a style that is a little complicated or is different, she is accused of deliberately trying to be obscure. Readers are not ready to put in the slightest effort. Today the journalistic jargon has conquered creative writing. The journalists are excellent editors who prune language rigorously to make it crisp and sharp and it comprehensible to the average reader. But I don’t believe that readability is based on simplicity alone. In response to my tale Mazhayude Cheriya Kaaladayaalam (The Faint Footprints of Rain), many readers raised the issue of the language. But language should suit the tale. When we cook shell fish, we get rid of the hard outer shells first but in other kinds of fish, the bones are inside and so we don’t do that. Frying a fish and cooking it in gravy are different. Like this, language has to suit the story. Our Malayalam language is strong enough to contain new and challenging ways. In my stories, I explore the strength of language.
Dhanalakshmi (Participant): In a story of one of our young woman writers, it was said that there is a potential rapist in every man. Are women, by contrast always angelic? Are women free of lust?
Lalitha Lenin (Writer Delegate): We have agreed that feminism is multi-voiced and that everyone has his/her own definition for it. This is very complex.We do not create ‘angelic’ women characters alone but they are also there. It is because of this variety that this is the golden age of women writing. I liked particularly Meera’s definition of feminism as a stand of self respect. Please remember that none of us consider writing as a tool to be used against men.
Sudha (Participant): Our women writers face several problems – this gets reflected in their writing. They are burdened with domestic work, several other restrictions and sharp censure. However, our young writers seem comparatively free from these limitations. They spoke very boldly here. They are much more courageous and plucky compared to the older generation writers. I am proud of these young people. I wish they would soar high and make notable contributions to our literary field.
Aleyamma (Participant): I am a reader, not a writer. I was Assistant Editor of a journal, twenty four years ago. There was neither encouragement for women in the field of journalism in those days, nor did it pay. I wouldn’t say there was overt discouragement but circumstances were against women working in the field. Though to be a journalist was my dream, I had to be satisfied with becoming a government servant and have now retired. I am happy and proud to see the women writers and participants critique, analyze and discuss their own writing and the works of others so openly and so well. Twenty five years ago, this wouldn’t have been possible at all. So I am here just to express my delight in being able to be present at this function.
Mini Sukumaran (Participant): We fear something or someone. We try to define feminism in negation. Kerala society is still very conservative. When we speak of family or society, we seem to experience fear and possibly that is why we negate feminism. I am also sorry that a lot of women writers seem to be ignorant of feminism and what it connotes. Writers need to study feminism and understand that the journalists’ warped or shallow presentation of it is not what it stands for. It is the patriarchal world that wrote about and discussed feminism and ‘Pennezhuthu’ in Kerala. This patriarchal group of critics was highly influenced by journalistic feminism. What they sought to highlight was that this was a way women writers should not follow. Women should, therefore, examine what feminism is all about and why the patriarchal voices are cautioning them against it. We are not the final word. Women writers all over the world are exploring the self of womanhood. In most countries, this process is linked to the literature of the marginalized, to ideas that have been marginalized, to dead languages and to new techniques of story telling. It is growing. Society needs to be restructured in relationship, in our subservience to hierarchy, in family relationships, in man – woman relationships. Madhavikutty tried to do that when she exposed the hypocrisy our society follows. What are the relationships that need to be restructured? We must look into that. Women have met and discussed these issues often. Our discussion must go on to further reality and resist picturisation of feminists as terrifying Badrakalis and as people to be abhorred.
Our syllabi in colleges and schools are so limited and obsolete that apart from a few students of literary theory, nobody is informed on gender and its workings. Activists are the only ones who think seriously about gender. Activists are not generally writers nor are they against writers. Changes can be wrought only if both the activists and the writers work in tandem. As Chandramaty suggested, discussion, travel and freedom are essential to a woman writer. That is what feminists too want as do the subalterns and the marginalized. The activists are not against the woman writer but are for her.
Deepa Prasad (Participant): From what has been presented here, I get the feeling that women’s security depends on their being accepted by men. When I hold fast to my strong opinion, I become too qualified to be a wife or a daughter-in-law. When our writers here said that women are safe within family, I gather they implied that they are not safe in society. I propose that women’s security should be part of the agenda of women/feminist writing. A free and safe society for women could be the ultimate goal of feminism.
Sreedevi K. Nair: Thank you Deepa, for your observation. It’s more than an hour past our scheduled time. That we are still enthusiastically discussing issues is proof of our deep concern and commitment to women writing. On behalf of Samyukta, I thank all our dear writers and active participants for this fruitful and pleasant experience.
We will now request R. Parvathy Devi, media person and critic to wind up the meeting.
Parvathy Devi (Participant): This kind of a get-together is not a new event. Women writers in Kerala have been meeting frequently in the last few years but those meetings were usually attended only by veteran writers. Today, young writers like Meera, Indu, Rekha, Sreebala and Asha are here with us. To listen to such new voices is a pleasant experience.
The women writers have not descended divinely from the sky. They are as much part of the society as other women are and hence face the same problems all women face in patriarchal societies. I have been working as a journalist for the last fifteen years, but I encounter the same problems that most ordinary women share. For many years, we have been discussing censorship too as one way of imposing limitations on women. But gifted women can break such bonds in ingenious ways. All of us who live in the patriarchal world have a pair of yellow spectacles through which we view the world. We cannot help it. But sometimes the specs slip off and we see the world as it is. All these experiences peculiar to women influence their writing. That is why the debate on ‘Pennezhuthu’ becomes relevant. In the preface to Sara Joseph’s collection of stories, Paapathara, the term was first used and consequently there was a great hullabaloo. It is not reservation. When a woman who has realized her self writes, the whole world changes. As far as she is concerned, her experiences of love, death, life or revolt are different from those of the patriarchal world. The experiences of a male journalist when he goes out, are not like my experiences. I call Chandramaty who denounces ‘Pennezhuthu’, a ‘Pennezhuthukari’ from my reading of her works. She has the freedom to say that she is not, however. If I or any other woman had written Indulekha, we wouldn’t have written it as Chandu Menon has done. Women writing cannot be treated lightly. In women’s liberation and studies on women’s experiences, we are still progressing very slowly, if at all. Discussions and re-readings should encompass ancient writings like the Mahabharata and the recent ones like Indu Menon’s works. That is where the significance of discussions lies. That is why re-writings take place. The social commitment of women writers and the question of art for art’s sake were discussed sixty years ago. But, all these questions need to be discussed again. As a collective of the old generation and the new, the conservative and the radical, such discussions must be carried on.
Translated from the audiotrack of the discussion by Sreedevi K. Nair, Hema Nair R. and Prasanth Radhakrishnan.
SREEDEVI K. NAIR. Teaches at the Department of English , N.S.S. College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. Recipient of several prestigious academic awards. Has published many books, the latest being Malayalathinte Kathakarikal, Women Short Story Writers of Malayalam.
PRASANTH RADHAKRISHNAN : is a student pursuing his B.A degree in English at Maharaja’s College, Ernakulam. He has participated in elocution and quiz competitions at the national and state levels.
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