Body and beyond

Print edition : December 07, 2007

Women writers of today, no longer trapped or diminished by gender, apparently lack the social commitment of the previous generation.

THE trope of the suffering female body is central to most of the 16 stories collected in Inner Line, all of them written in the past 20 years by well-known women authors. The sensibility here is that of the older generation of feminist writers, who have been concerned with giving expression to the suffering that women endure owing to oppression by men. The tone of this collection is, therefore, mainly sombre. Intimate relations within the domestic context form the focus of most of these stories.

Anjana Appachana skilfully presents the horror of rape through the eyes of the victims innocent younger sister. While her narrative voice is ironic and modern, her subject harks back to the feminism of the 1980s because the victim views herself as helpless.

This motif of the helplessly suffering woman runs through several stories. Vandana Singh weaves a fantasy about a woman with access to a secret world. But her access is solely through her body not her mind. In the end she returns to her unsatisfying domestic life because though escape is possible she cannot imagine escaping. It is the internalisation of social norms and expectations that traps women.

Even Manjula Padmanabhans Black American protagonist seems very close to the traditional middle-class or upper-caste Indian woman in her obsession with her body and its menstrual flows.

Shashi Deshpandes narrator is physically crippled: her escapes consist of guilty fantasies about men. Anita Agnihotris Malini, on the other hand, is emotionally trapped. She is forced to hide her passion for her neighbours husband even while he lies dying in hospital. Her helplessness marks her out as yet another woman victim.

But even women who gather their courage and determine to escape are thwarted. Thus Nayantara Sehgals narrator is about to ask for a divorce when she is struck down by fate. Women can never win because society and destiny conspire against them.

Bulbul Sharma and Priya Sarukkai Chabria provide welcome relief with more light-hearted stories, while Githa Hariharan offers an atmospheric evocation of a dysfunctional childhood.

Shama Futehallys story is beautifully understated. Her young narrator is uneasily aware that her privileged upper-class existence somehow cuts her off from any meaningful connection with the lives of the poor who live on the other side of the compound wall. Unable to bear her own distress at their poverty, she learns to repress all empathy. She ends up feeling unmistakably dead, as I was to do for many years to come (page195).

Futehallys message is that to live meaningfully, women need to connect with the wider world. Selfish pleasure and greed destroy the soul. This theme is echoed in Temsula Aos account of the massacre of a Naga congregation by the Indian Army and, again, in Mridula Gargs environmental fable.

Chandrika B. adroitly comments on the hypocrisy behind societys sexual double standards. Her story switches between Sushama, a housewife, and her suspicious husband who is very particular that his wife, like Caesars, should be above suspicion (page 237). While Sushamas secret is merely that she writes love poetry, her husbands secret is that he enjoys making advances to a woman colleague. Sushama cannot risk her husband seeing her poems and tears them up. Society forces on women this destruction of creativity. In Indira Goswamis story, this comes in the form of the repeated abortions that a village sex-worker has to endure.

In conclusion, we turn to two narratives that form an ironic pair. Mahasweta Devis tale, sharply modern, alienates us from the protagonist, Jashoda, whose large breasts are ever-flowing, yielding milk like a great big cow (page 40). As a wet nurse, Jashoda becomes invaluable to a rich family and her status soars. But years later she is summarily discarded. She develops breast cancer, described in unsympathetic detail, and dies. So much for womens glory and womens status, when these are derived from willing female subordination, Devi seems to say.

C.S. Lakshmi (Ambai) plays a variation on the same theme, this time it is the glory and status that senior women derive from their control over younger women and the kitchen. Lakshmis character, Jiji, rules over her daughters-in-law with an iron hand and sees herself like a queen (page 80). Ironically, as she lies dying, it is her South Indian daughter-in-law, the dark skinned woman who enticed her son, who holds her hand. Minakshi, who talks too much unlike the other obedient daughters-in-law, has a death-bed conversation with Jiji, in which she tries to liberate her mother-in-law from the delusion that authority comes to her from her kitchen and her jewels. Liberation, Minakshi declares, comes only with the renunciation of the female body itself:

Sink deeper still When you touch bottom you will reach the universal waters You will connect yourself with the world that surrounds you. Your womb and your breasts will fall away from you. The smell of cooking will vanish away. The sparkle of jewellery will disappear. And there will be you. Not trapped nor diminished by gender, but freed (page 82).

Here a fundamental sruti (note) of this generation of feminist writers is sounded. Female identity, as constructed by Indian tradition, is demeaning and is a trap. Escape lies in abandoning this despised femaleness for a gender-neutral, asexual persona, a different kind of femaleness that is not marked as deeply inferior and humiliating.

Today, this may seem to be an inadequate response because for the new generation of middle-class Indian women so much more of life has been opened up. Yet these very freedoms, so easily enjoyed by young women, were won by the earlier generation by feminist activists, lawyers, academics, publishers and authors. If todays young women do not feel trapped or diminished by gender but comfortable and happy as women, it is because of those pioneers who did so much, in their struggles to secure an equal status for all Indian women. Inner Line stands as a monument to their creative genius.

The book 21 Under 40 is a different kind of collection; it breathes the sensibility of todays globalised, urbanised, middle-class youth. Class is absolutely central to an understanding of this new sensibility and to an understanding of what middle-class young women are at. To speak of a globalised Indian middle class is, automatically, to speak of an urbanised cultural elite.

The 21 writers in this collection are primarily upper-caste/middle-class young women under the age of 40. Even when they are not upper-caste but from a lower caste, their caste identity means relatively little here because in urban India, unlike in rural India, it is education and class that largely orient normative values. This is not to argue that caste does not play a role today, but merely to point out that for the English-speaking global middle class, class identity looms larger in the construction of personal identity than caste.

This collection differs from Inner Line in many ways. Here we have not just Indian stories but also two outstanding ones from Sri Lanka and Pakistan. If the suffering female body is the central trope of the first collection, the creative canvas is far more diverse here. The female body is central to only four stories, where it takes on surprisingly new meanings.

Tishani Doshi subtly alludes to the sexual abuse of her young narrator, but this is not the central strand of her dark evocation of a childhood filled with ghosts.

Annie Zaidis protagonist is deeply embarrassed by the display of her half-naked body by careless nurses during an electrocardiogram, but it is the diseased, ageing body of an older woman patient that leads us to her theme of universal malaise.

Susan Koshys account of a lesbian love affair focusses on womens bodies, but these women are in no awe of men. Adithi Raos lyrical tale of a magical love culminates in the secret anointing of the womans body. Though she is being married off by her family, the woman calmly accepts the desertion by her mysterious lover. These are not stories of oppressed women.

Social criticism in these tales is never direct. Even the two narratives that deal with female infanticide present men as suffering (Aishwarya Subramanyam) and confused (Swarnalatha Rangarajan) individuals, and not as evildoers. Further, in sharp distinction from Inner Line, four of the authors in 21 Under 40 speak through male narrators. And globalised India enters the scene explicitly in seven stories. Doshis dysfunctional children are the product of an Indian-English marriage.

Shahnaz Habibs third girl announces her familys prestigious Gulf connections by offering the guests Tang. Anju Mary Pauls endearing tale of going to church secretly is set among Singapore Malayalis.

Both Anjum Hasan and Roohi Choudhry chronicle the anxieties of men whose highest wish is to escape, from Bangalore and Karachi respectively, to that mythical paradise, the United States.

And Narmada Thiranagamas poignant story starts in a bombed-out Jaffna and ends in England. The authors biographies reveal many of them to be global citizens, whose concerns cross national boundaries with ease. Drama played out solely within the four walls of the home has long since been jettisoned here. Yet the best stories reveal a skilful interweaving of the protagonists inner world with social criticism.

Thiranagamas account of the civil war in Jaffna is deeply depressing, yet luminous with the love between school friends and between a mother and a daughter. In this moving chronicle of the massacre of innocents, one cannot help reading a poignant elegy as well, for the author is the daughter of an extraordinary and heroic woman, the human rights activist Dr. Rajani Thiranagama, who was murdered in Jaffna. But even without this knowledge, her story overwhelms the reader with a sense of irretrievable loss of a cherished cultural world and tender family ties.

At least half the stories in 21 Under 40 are outstanding. Meena Kandasamys e-mail expose of the complicated love affairs of new women is vibrantly witty. Nisha Susan, using a chat-room mode, provides feasts of literary love, verbal conceits piled high.

Epsita Halders graphic (comic strip) Muslim-Hindu love story offers engaging social critique, while Ruchika Chananas macabre fantasy of a girl who sees lies in technicolour is cunningly crafted with a shocking denouement. Even more shocking is Diana Romanys disturbing bordello tale, where a selfish, greedy sensuality brutally dehumanises others.

My favourite is Habibs utterly delightful tale of how to choose a bride. It is set on the mountain roads of lush Kottayam, Kerala, where a fleet of taxis travel on a bridal inspection tour, because it is high time Ahmad mama got married. The radio sings inane, romantic old Malayalam songs while the taxis wind their way, with the children, joined by our young narrator, vomiting regularly by the roadside because they are force-fed at each home they visit. The visitors stonily ate their way through a mountain as the villains watched with sadistic pleasure. Sugar-crusted, chocolate-layered biscuits and cookies and on and on, finishing with syrupy red jalebis. Ice-cream. Dates covered with honey. Rose-milk. The hero and his family knew it was futile to protest (page 62).

Exquisite humour, a perfect touch and a surprise ending make Habibs story irresistible.

And yet I have to append a note, if not of protest, at least of deep unease. Entertaining, indeed engrossing, as these stories often are, what do they tell us about a feminist or socialist commitment? It is obvious that these authors do not view themselves as required to address feminist issues or to convey feminist messages. Their strongly individualist sensibility is not necessarily indifferent to societys ills but does not seem engaged by feminist or socialist struggle either.

This is the most striking difference between this younger generation of authors and the older, unquestionably feminist and socialist, writers of Inner Line.

Is it the new milk-and-honey land in which the upwardly mobile English-speaking middle class bathes that explains why the feminist sensibility has evaporated from the perspectives of these young authors? Unlike Inner Line, not a single story in 21 Under 40 is translated from an Indian language. These writers are from English-speaking India.

Todays iPod generation of the urban multiplex and shopping mall has it all, and if the battle for equal access to the good life has been won for this tiny social fraction of upper-caste or middle-class young women, why would they want to engage in protest or struggle?

For this they would need to look beyond their comfortable lives, to the forgotten India where the majority of the population still lives. The privileged tend to forget the struggles that made them where they are, in this case the efforts of the earlier generation of feminists.

This is the irony of the success of upper-caste or middle-class feminism. It has secured for its own young women the liberties that they were denied even 20 years ago. But they, not surprisingly, seem to see no reason to transcend their comfortable urban locations to engage with the poverty, male domination and growing inequality that trap both urban and rural women at the lower levels of the economy. Not much has changed for impoverished rural women. But they are just not part of the story in 21 Under 40.

Recently I heard a storyteller of this new generation speak in a feminist-socialist voice, a young man who made his name in Bollywood. He spoke, in a newspaper interview, of his deep unease with the way the fruits [of the economic boom] are not reaching many parts of the country.

He ended by emphasising the urgent need to engage with the neglect of women: Fifty per cent of our population is women, and if you think you are going to become a world power while 50 per cent of our population does not have any means to achieve their potential, it is not practical thinking. If a Bollywood scriptwriter, even while entertaining people, can raise important social issues, there is no reason why women short-story writers cannot. But will they?

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