Jayasree Sukumaran’s book, ‘The Feminist Challenge: Alice Munro and Anita Desai’ is a ready reference for scholars

Even if the fire is out of feminism as a social issue, in the 21st century, women’s issues remain alive. Dr. Jayasree Sukumaran’s book, ‘The Feminist Challenge: Alice Munro and Anita Desai’, addresses gender issues as seen in the works of the two reputable women writers.

Both the writers whose works Jayasree delves into are not belligerent feminists but realists and hence their portrayals of women are part of the issues and not the issue. There is no didactic strain in their works and Dr. Jaysree agrees when asked about her views on the gender issue now. “The fighting phase is over, the female phase is alive. But socially women are being commoditised now,” she says pointing to the semi nude portrayals of women on bill boards.

Similar experiences

Her research throws up these facts. That despite women’s experiences being similar all over the world there are contrasts in approach. In eastern thought and society the woman is celebrated, worshipped as much as she is condemned and marginalised. The Indian psyche is “complex” with regard to woman, believes the author. “I pointed out that the gender difference is superficial and at a higher plane, no differences exist.”

It is the search for an identity that the Indian woman is craving for and not equality, as her western counterpart did and does, infers Jayasree. The argument she poses is that Indian mythology, which deals with birth and rebirth, has a male reborn as a female and vice versa. “So gender is always in a state of flux.” This necessitates mutual respect and acceptance, which according to the author can come only through compromise.

In western psyche gender is crucial. Woman is referred to as the second sex. “No such term exists in Eastern thought.” Disagreeing with the charge that Manusmriti portrays women as ‘chattels’ she argues that it is an out of context reference that has been highlighted and that in its entirety Manu asks for women to be protected by man. She also dwells on the Chinese concept of yin-yang, mutual man-woman complementarities.

Interesting comparisons between the snapshot portrayal of women, as part of the whole, as “in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s ‘Naalu Pennungal’,” and Anita Desai’s gentle storytelling of women in complex situations is what is brought out in the book.

Marriage is another decision, which concerns women more than men. And education adds to the complexity, feels the author. Sexuality, she says is individual and personal. “But I feel educated women need companionship. And education moves them above animalism,” says Jayasree. A point of difference that Jayasree spells out is that Canadian or western women look more for body gratification as compared to Indian women who are in search of emotional fulfilment. “My concern was how these two women authors were portraying life as well as characters in it.”

Jayasree’s dissertation, ‘Feminine Poetics’ that finally took the shape of this book is a ready reference for scholars and students. From chapters that deal with the history of feminist theory to the struggles of women towards fulfilment, to the dynamics of women’s writing the book has an interesting correlation between women and language. Jayasree has applied linguistic theory to analyse women’s situation.

Jayasree Sukumaran taught literature at Maharaja’s College, and was principal of various government colleges across the State and was Deputy Director of Collegiate Education in Kottayam.

“Literature is a stepping stone to philosophy,” she says revealing that it is spiritual discourses that now engage her, moving into another new phase, as a woman.

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