Women's Writing

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Tales This Tongue Didn't Twist


There is a story my father likes to tell when people ask him what his eldest daughter wants to do ‘with her life’. It seems that I was 13 and determined when I’d interrupted his important business call to say, “When I grow up, I’ll be a famous Lady Author” with hands on my hips and my eyes defiant. He says, almost always laughingly, that was the day he’d started worrying about me. Quite predictably, the writers I admired were White Ladies or Dusty Men — say hello to the child born on the brink of globalisation — and I had a grand scheme of writing a book by the time I was 25 and saying wise things like, “Oh writing is like breathing for me, I may have never consented to it, but it keeps my veins full”¹, appearing on TeeVee and inspiring little ladies everywhere to write, pretty much like Jo of Little Women, maybe with pants instead of frilly skirts though. And then, between all these juvenile fantasies, words and tongues I started opening up to, it became clear how alien and few Dusty Ladies were a part of my daily vocabulary, how little I knew of my culture and it’s deferential treatment to anyone who identified as female within its folds, or that I’d never really felt represented in words as much I could in this hued writing. It shocked me to see that I didn’t identify as strongly with Anne Eliot as much I had previously thought after reading Ismat Chughtai’s stories or that as much I suffered with Clarissa Dalloway, truth was she would probably never see beyond the hue of my epidermis tissue. This is where I stumbled into wonderful — feminine-identified — Indian writing, my world began to fill with names like mine, and people who too found themselves stuck on the fringe between being Western or Dusty, and of course the silences accompanied this writing too.

I’m still adjusting to this shift, from the open prose of George Eliot, which is ‘open’ and ‘free’ in the way only a few people in this world are allowed to be, to the heavily veiled writing of Dusty Ladies. I’m still haunted by Abburi Chaya Devi’s protagonist in ‘Sleep’ who grows up in such a restrictive environment that she doesn’t know what to do when she wants to laugh. I can replay the scene in my head when at the climax of the story she wakes up her mother to say anxiously, “Mother, I feel like laughing. The laughter is bubbling up, what shall I do?”. Years later, I realised it was a snippet of her own life where she was punished for laughing by her parents for laughing at a professor’s joke. I’ve always reveled and lost myself in Emily Dickinson’s verses — to an extent, I still do — and then I stumbled somehow to Eunice De Souza whose verses give silence quite an another underbelly altogether. This silence intrigues me as sometimes it enters my writing too, it’s something a lot of women have noticed and re-negotiated. It seems if you identify as a Lady out here, some people just cannot wait to bind you in rules and borders, asking and clearly specifying the lines you are not allowed to tread. Last year I attended a writing workshop where the speaker started with asking about things we, as the current youth demographic of India, wrote about or were sensitive to. The most common answers were politics, religion and sex. Then the speaker asked how many people would fearlessly write about these topics, and it was quite telling that most people who raised hands were dudes; most girls in the room and I shared guilty looks², for not letting that part of us out, as if we’re betraying ourselves in some strange way. Of course, then the speaker went on to explain how we should ‘break free’ from these cultural chains and just give in to writing urges with the loathsome self-assurance that only Upper Caste Hindu Dudes in India enjoy. The truth is, we can’t wipe away gender — whether assigned or taken — as if it’s a dark stain, scrub away till it lightens its way to disappearing completely; in fact the more we try to hide it, the more it reeks up the prose³.

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The Business Of Selling Voices

As this is the week of Diwali, most of the Ladies of my house are busy preparing various sorts of obligatory ‘Diwali specialties’ while the MenPeople take a break from work, colonise various electronic ports of the house — from the Computer to the TV, in an extremely vapid version of the Matrix — and more or less just laze around. In traditional feminine spaces of the house (the kitchen, the veranda, the room with the temple) you’ll see a lot of bustling activity, hear voices teasing, laughing, sometimes sharp clipped tones when instructions go wrong; the air goes stale here, turns inwards on itself, the cracks speak volumes and there is a constant negotiation of silences. Ironically, such quasi-unregulated ‘women’s spaces’ often leave me claustrophobic —  especially when I’m supposed to don the Dutiful Indian Daughter’s Shoes or otherwise — as these spaces often remind me of Gertrude Stein’s famous words describing a box,

“Left open, to be left pounded, to be left closed, to be circulating in summer and winter, and sick colour that is grey that is not dusty and red shows an empty length sooner than a choice in colour. Hope, what is a spectacle, a spectacle is the resemblance between the circular side place and nothing else, nothing else“;

where femininity is at display in such an obtuse manner that femininity and the Body Feminine becomes a monolithic garment that is supposed to cover us all; that I imagine it leaves a few bodies bare on purpose. Such bodies are always marked, for being different; if you squint really hard you can spot them at a distance too, flitting from one room to another, searching for a place to be.

Unable to stand the noise and the commotion in my room, I left to go to a book sale across town hoping to lift my mood a bit. And sure enough, at the end of the store, the shelf marked as ‘Feminism’ did make me smile for a while till I processed what it held. Either there were Western feminist texts like The Second Sex or The Feminine Mystique or multiple copies of memoirs of women from Gulf nations, talking about the violence and repression they face there. Maybe I am too cynical, but since when did memoirs penned by White women, based on the life of women from Saudi Arabia constitute as feminist texts? Surely, the voice of anyone anywhere is worth listening to irrespective of gender, class, sexual orientation, colour, caste, ethnicity and so on. But in the transcribing of voices, how much is lost, how much is censored, how much is directed to fit the convenient slot of the Powerless Third World Woman, the Eternal Victim are invisible questions the back of 4th edition paperback doesn’t divulge. The way this LadyBrain sees it, writing for the Coloured or Marked Body has become a business, a fetish of sorts to be sold to White as well as hued audiences, as both are reassured that their positions are left unchallenged. I’ve seen a lot of women reading Jean Sasson‘s books, many have recommended them to me and I have read each one of them (it’s an incurable disease People Of The Olde Interwebes), they are a sort of ‘go-to’ book sources the moment anyone professes any interest in gender or culture theory. It’s rather unfortunate that each book is a memoir about women who undergo the terrifyingly real — and sometimes even hyper-real — routine of rape, torture, patriarchal stronghold on minds and bodies, while none of these women write the books themselves. As glad I am that someone is reading or listening to these voices, so much is co-opted in the process that I’m left with a bitter taste of the DoucheColonial Gaze on my skin, that is omnipresent in the text. Also, these books are an excuse for several right-winged groups to say, “Look how those Muslim buggers treat women! At least we don’t stone you¹”. It’s fascinating — where fascinating is the new grotesque — to see how ‘comfortable’ we are reading and even consuming these voices, as long they are far away from our society.  Which is why an anthology like Poisoned Bread made a few too many people angry and eventually defensive (because which god-fearing, self-respecting Hindu would want to be reminded of all the sins zie has committed for centuries on Dalits?) but books like Princess and Daughters of Mayada are fetishised.

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Weekly Textual/Sexual Reader (Week 1)

Jaded16's Note: So a few weeks ago I joined Tumblr on a whim. Alcohol may have been a part of the three second decision-making process. Or not. Anyway, on another equally fancyarse whim I promised myself I'd read one book a week. So readers of the Olde Interwebes I will torture you weekly with these inane book reviews. It comes with the territory of e-stalking someone. Heh.


Dear Tumblr,

A year ago, in  one of the best classes I've ever taken (women's studies) my professor introduced a book to us 'The Inner Courtyard', a collection of short stories by Indian women. She read out an excerpt wonderfully and I just knew that I had to read this book. Sort of like a strange need to again re-create the magic the excerpt had weaved around me. I remember finding this book and feeling so happy, looking and touching the cover; it seemed like an image I'd seen before somewhere but didn't know just where. Now I remember my grandmother's sari had a similar border, but there yet remains an ever illusive feeling, of possessing something and yet letting it slip out in wisps helplessly voluntarily compulsively, taking tiny slivers of myself with it.

With page one started my difficult -- at best -- relationship with the book. People are always surprised when they see me not completely swooning over the book, after all it's written by Indian women right? So I should be able to automatically relate to it, as if some part of my cell formation as an IndianLady should tug me towards these stories. As if, these words should re-vertebrate within my soul (if I even have one that is) or perhaps within my being as a woman, I should see my past coming out alive from the flesh of the book. As if I were to react to the book like I was an ant, caught between the words and print, till I became so tiny, forgetting who I was and become a part of the grand narrative. As if this 'Indianness' that I supposedly am born with will help me understand this book as an extension of myself. I can't simplistically say that none of these assumptions were true nor can I completely accept what I felt reading these voices.

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