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In this essay, Geetanjali Singh Chanda explores the idea of the nation, and its representation as a house or home in postcolonial Indian English literature. The author identifies that this literature has a dual parentage that manifests in its narratives, where characters with fragmented identities negotiate to make India their home.
Chanda explores this depiction of ‘Indianness’ through three prominent literary works: Nayantara Sahgal’s Rich Like Us (1983), Meena Alexander’s Nampally Road (1991), and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997). She focuses on the treatment of history within these narratives, and the struggle of characters to reconcile their personal or national history with the post-colonial present. This is done by connecting the events in the text to a significant historical event—like the Indian Independence in 1947, or the Emergency of 1975, which becomes the setting of both Rich Like Us and Nampally Road.
While an exhaustive study of the novels’ characters and storyline shows differences in their narratives and the authors’ perspectives, Chanda identifies common themes of disillusionment, belonging, and a complicated relationship with a house, which in each narrative becomes symbolic of the characters’ relationship with the nation. Women in particular seem to have tenuous relationships with the house, often being marginalized in the idea of the nation. But their relationships with each other seem to transcend national and ethnic identities, and help them navigate through the nation. Chanda focuses on these relationships in particular, associating the motherland with the biological mother.
In this essay, Pratiksha Baxi explores the modes by which the law addresses stripping and parading as a political ritual of atrocity in India at three registers: the naming of the spectacular violence by law; the naming of sites of such corporeal performances in legally plural settings; and identifying the circuits of power that are activated to immunize communities and institutions from naming these acts of injustice.
She illustrates the history of protests against sexual harassment, drawing on watershed legal cases and amendments, starting from the protests by women’s group against the rape of underage tribal girl Mathura in 1979, to nation-wide protests against the Nirbhaya rape case in 2012. Baxi draws extensively on the legal proceedings of Maya Tyagi’s sexual assault case (Sheo Kumar Gupta v State of Uttar Pradesh) and on the case of a young Hindu widow, S, who was sexually assaulted and paraded in her local community after she married a Muslim man (Miss M.S. Annaporani v State of UP). She examines the remnants of colonial law, particularly the laws of “divine displeasure” and “outraging a woman’s modesty” to see how mythic temporalities—like that of Draupadi from Mahabharta, in Mrs. Tyagi’s case—are evoked.
Baxi argues, using this framework, that the stripping and parading of women is constitutive of a public spectacle in which the victim is put on display as a degraded object, having been stripped literally and symbolically of all that is social. The justificatory discourse of such violence constitutes its victims as transgressive subjects who deserve the violence by evoking the language of law or custom. Elaborating on various legal amendments and introductions to judgments, Baxi concludes with analyzing the failings of these in practice. The processes of according dignity remain fraught, she says, when courts insist on hypertechnicalities hollowing the law of its constitutional content
Twelve-year-old Sarojini’s best friend, Amir, might not be her best friend any more. Ever since Amir moved out of the slum and started going to a posh private school, it seems like he and Sarojini have nothing in common. Then Sarojini finds out about the Right to Education, a law that might help her get a free seat at Amir’s school – or, better yet, convince him to come back to a new and improved version of the government school they went to together. As she struggles to keep her best friend, Sarojini gets help from some unexpected characters, including Deepti, a feisty classmate who lives at a construction site; Vimala Madam, a human rights lawyer who might also be an evil genius; and Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, a long-dead freedom fighter who becomes Sarojini’s secret pen pal. Told through letters to Mrs. Naidu, this is the story of how Sarojini learns to fight – for her friendship, her family, and her future.
Poster Women is an archive of over 1500 posters from the Indian Women's Movement, collected over an 18 monthperiod from all over India. Put together by Zubaan, this unique archive demonstrates the dynamism, richness and variety of this important movement. Spanning the periodfrom the 70s to the present day, the collection is divide into a number of key campaigns that cover areas such as violence, health, political participation, the environment, religion and communalism, literacy and rights and marginalization. Also included are posters on different themes such as the use of the goddess metaphor, or the marking of particular days that ara important to the movement. The collection has been sourced from over 200 groups all over the country.
This essay is a historical overview of Dalit literature, focusing on the contribution of women writers. The authors Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon show how the Dalit movement gained momentum with the rise of Dalit centric newspapers and literary societies, which gave a voice to the Dalit people. Led by Babasaheb Ambedkar, this literary movement was strengthened through talks, discussions, analysis of folk songs, and by spreading literacy and encouraging research. By the 1960s, Dalit writers had created a huge collection of short stories, poems, novels, autobiographies and analytical pieces. The authors focus on the gradual increase of female voices and perspectives in Dalit writing – on topics ranging from religious customs like funerary rites, birth control, to mixed marriages. Some women included larger criticisms of patriarchal societal norms in their writing, advocating for equality. They were especially emphatic about the need for education, urging other Dalit women to take initiative by educating their daughters. The essay also looks at writings on Ambedkar himself, and on Buddhism, the religion that Ambedkar heavily propounded, and later embraced. By providing excerpts of their writings, the essay shows how the women often had differing points of view, leading to healthy discussions and critiques. Appreciating these works for their literary merits as well as social significance, the authors suggest that they helped people understand and appreciate their own history, and facilitated the spread of radical ideas of identity and self-worth.
Following the 1971 Bangladesh War, the Bangladesh government publicly designated the thousands of women raped by the Pakistani military and their local collaborators as birangonas, ("brave women”). Nayanika Mookherjee demonstrates that while this celebration of birangonas as heroes keeps them in the public memory, they exist in the public consciousness as what Mookherjee calls a spectral wound. Dominant representations of birangonas as dehumanized victims with disheveled hair, a vacant look, and rejected by their communities create this wound, the effects of which flatten the diversity of their experiences through which birangonas have lived with the violence of wartime rape. In critically examining the pervasiveness of the birangona construction, Mookherjee opens the possibility for a more politico-economic, ethical, and nuanced inquiry into the sexuality of war.
A qualitative as well as quantitative ethnography of 500 Dalit women who had been subjected to verbal, sexual and physical violence by men of the dominant castes, this essay starts as a narrative of individual Dalit women and moves towards an analysis of the reasons for the kinds of responses these women received when they tried to seek justice.
The essence of the essay’s argument is that despite the existence of adequate legal measures, Dalit women still face insurmountable obstacles while getting those measures implemented, assuming of course that they know that what has been perpetrated against them is legally actionable.
Typically, the responses to such violence include the women not seeking legal remedies in the first place; women getting blocked at the community level (by perpetrators, by the dominant caste community, by dominant caste Panchayats, by their own families, or by Dalit panchayats) from accessing legal remedies; women receiving some informal, inadequate form of justice by NGOs or panchayats; and women getting blocked by the police from accessing legal remedies.
The author finds that state impunity, dominant caste impunity and the collusion between the two is the central reason for Dalit women not being able to receive the formal redress that they ought to. To that effect, the author suggests that challenging this impunity will be the primary task of organizations seeking Dalit women’s empowerment.
Very little is known about Aesop who was supposed to have been a slave on the island of Samos in the sixth century BC. It is his fables (and those attributed to him) that have come down to us through the centuries.
In this version, a fabulist from the future, referred to as Sprite, hoicks herself back to his century. “Why didn’t you save the world?” That’s the Sprite’s cry. Aesop, meanwhile, is trying to save his skin, make up his fables and live his life. Given the pitfalls of human nature, are the fables an Instruction Manual for staying out of trouble? What about morals, what about reform, what about the castigation of social evils? Sprite nags and cajoles and begins to wonder how much power a writer really has. The book offers a virtuoso display of how the building blocks of a fable can be used in a variety of ways. It’s witty, it’s satirical and the Sprite herself is a comical figure. But at the end, when she has to return to her own time, that is to our own time and to our broken world, her central question suddenly seems less absurd, and far more urgent.
“Think of the vicious wit of Virginia Woolf, laced with the tender melancholia of Hélène Cixous, spiked with the subtle eroticism of Anaïs Nin.”
— Somak Ghoshal, Livemint
“Her writing is both wry and brave, rooted and uprooting. It is, in fact, as the title suggests fabulous writing.”
—Annie Zaidi, author of Gulab and Love Stories #1-14
“Namjoshi’s radicalism is not simply one of overturning structures, or of arguing for the recognition of women but, in the best practice of feminism, investigates, rethinks and revalues.”
—Robyn Cadwallader, Verity La
Suniti Namjoshi is a poet, a fabulist and a children’s writer who has written over thirty books. A selection of her writings is published in The Fabulous Feminist (Zubaan, 2012). Suki (Zubaan, Penguin India, 2013), a memoir about her beloved cat is both a book about a relationship and an elegy. Her latest work, Foxy Aesop, asks point-blank whether it is the function of writers to save the world. She has recently completed a dramatic sequence, ‘The Dream Book,’ which is based on the dream imagery in The Tempest and is also concerned with saving the world – over and over and over again.
Sahba Husain, in her capacity as a consultant with Oxfam, worked in Kashmir at a time when the conflict was already 15 years old. This essay discusses her experiences as a part of the Violence Mitigation and Amelioration Project, where her task was to examine the psychological impact of violence on people's lives as well as the echoes of such violence. It brings to the forefront the increasing rates of psychological disorders and cases of suicide, and the utter paucity of resources for dealing with the deteriorating mental health situation in the region. The essay’s observations on trauma and health stem from the author's empirical study of the population of Kashmir, for whom life has been rendered uncertain. Husain explores how faced with loss, suffering and prolonged stress, women in the region have become susceptible to depression and anxiety too, but often cannot seek treatment due to social constraints. By capturing certain experiences of the people, the essay evokes the drastic transition that has taken place in their lives after militancy and has left Kashmir in the dark. The refrain of fear that is pervasive in the region only affirms that no one, irrespective of age, gender or class, has escaped the massive impact that militancy and the AFSPA have had. Husain's piece is a reflective one as she discusses the challenges she faced during her work, which were integral to her subsequent disillusionment with the Indian state . Her essay, too, shatters a certain monolithic image of Kashmir and sheds light on the psychological trauma and health issues that people from the Valley face. It is, finally, a reminder of the patience, endurance and strength that women have displayed in their desire for justice, and above all, peace.
Writing in Dalit Women Speak Out, authors Irudayam, Mangubhai and Lee situate this essay within brahmanical patriarchal discourse of dishonour and blame, which stigmatizes Dalit women who are victim-survivors of violence. Their interviews with five hundred Dalit women investigate the nature and forms of violence faced by the women, and bring to light not only instances of violence within Dalit households, but also the overwhelming number of cases that relate to rapes by male members of dominant castes.
These personal narratives articulate the dilemmas that confront women when facing themselves and society after being subjected to violence. The fear generated following any type of violence, and the impunity with which much of the violence occurs, all contribute to changes in the victim-survivors’ social interactions and sense of belonging to their families and communities. The authors focus on both the immediate and long-term consequences of violence on women vis-à-vis their right to health, dignity, life and security. With the help of the study they demonstrate how short-term physical injuries have the capacity to inflict long-term mental suffering, which can exacerbate feelings of helplessness and fear of further violence. The lives of Dalit women become conditioned to violence rather than freedom, which can lead to the curtailment of women’s mobility in public spaces.
For this essay, Adrienne Germain draws from her professional life, especially her interactions with female sex workers in the Indian subcontinent. The author details how action around sex workers is often centred on “rehabilitation” and “relocation” as though all women in sex work had been “forced” into it by circumstance. Germain believes that this position deprives these women of their agency and fails to respect their autonomy as individuals.
The central theme of the essay is the difference of opinion among feminists, and between some feminists and the sex workers’ movement, on if sex work is or can be an autonomous choice by women, or is always and only a form of violence and exploitation of women. Another important theme dealt with in the essay is the interface of sex work and HIV, where policy makers often see sex workers only as a vector of the disease with programmatic interventions often not recognizing these workers as agents of change themselves. She mentions her engagement with several non-governmental organizations in India that led her to realize the need to establish and implement sex workers’ labour rights.
The author also discusses her positionality and mentions the emotive barriers or discomforts that still remain for her around sex work, which she attributes to differences in life experience. She describes these “emotive barriers” as stemming from the fact that she cannot fully imagine the choices, as much as she respects their right to sex work. In addition to general opposition to defending the rights of women in sex work, she discusses how many women perceive these sex workers as a direct threat to themselves, to their marriages, or to a social order in which they feel “safe”. The author states that in the broadest sense, both feminist and sex workers’ movement are founded on the commitment to women’s autonomy especially control of their bodies. She concludes with a call for solidarity and for women to unite across diversities to mitigate the challenges around sex work.
Fateema opened her diary and began writing: “Jihad as mentioned by the Prophet is a war against injustice and oppression. Islam means peace and surrender. Islam does not recommend killing innocent people. The Prophet released hundreds of slaves from bondage and sent themback to their native land.”
There was a lot more she could write. She would one day. Not for others, but to her own people she would explain the meaning of the word ‘Islam’.
For a bright young woman like Fateema Lokhandwala, the idea that one day she might own her own house is a daring dream. Her father has spent his life, slaving away selling scrap metal so that his children might ‘jump the fence of poverty and illiteracy’. Fateema dreams not only of owning her own house, but of higher education, a better job, a wider world. Her brother, Kareem, is persuaded down a very different path – to join the jihad, to become a holy warrior.
Ila Arab Mehta’s moving and sharply observed novel follows one woman’s struggle to find her way in a world torn by communal violence, to reconcile her conflicting loyalties to her family and friends, to find a place that she can ultimately call ‘home’, a place where fences –between communities, between people – are no longer necessary.
Chakravarti’s essay counters the claim that in the pre-colonial period, a ‘fixed’ Hindu law didn’t exist because of multiple caste laws, by arguing instead that even those separate caste laws were bound by a broader rational framework, enforced as such by the Peshwai.
Chakravarti analyses the three legal issues of widow remarriage, conjugality and the age of consent to explore how the colonial laws affected women; the relationship between the caste panchayat and the larger legal culture of the second half of the nineteenth century, and whether the textual law was more or less repressive than customary law.
Women came under the purview of the colonial law because of a weakening of the caste panchayats, and the new British administration gave men a choice of forum through which to enforce patriarchy.
They were also brought under the colonial state through criminal cases against them, such as those for prostitution and abortion. The colonial state was able to do this effectively because the patriarchal Indian community also had the same goals. Despite the inherently patriarchal nature of colonial laws, women also sought the system out for cases of adoption and rights over their parents’ property.
The essay also points to how cultural nationalism unified ‘Hindus’, placing a Brahmanical patriarchal notion of womanhood instead of caste and regional differences, raising important questions about the relationship among the colonial state, law, family, caste panchayats and gender in the nineteenth century.
After the success of These Hills Called Home and Once Upon a Life, Temsula Ao returns to her beloved Nagaland to bring readers the beautifully crafted story of Aosenla, a woman who is coming to terms with herself. The novel opens on a typical summer afternoon that soon turns into another oppressive evening. Aosenla sits listening to her children playing nearby and is seized by a great lethargy. As she casts a watchful gaze over the house she has called home for so many years, Aosenla wonders how an inanimate structure like a house can exercise such power over a human being.
Looking down at a wedding invitation in her hands, Aosenla begins to recall her own wedding many years ago, initiating a deep and moving reflection on the life that others made for her and the life that she eventually created for herself.
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