Women writers have fought in different ways to get noticed
Authors may be the undisputed masters of words but even they seek refuge in silence. And women, specially in the Subcontinent, have learnt that silence is often a sturdy companion that helps fight for space, for expression, for dialogue. The struggle for space, be it figurative or metaphysical, is a predominant part of the life of women authors. It could not be incidental that the much-feted author Mridula Garg, in her childhood, often sought her own space in her house in Lutyens’ Delhi. Her father pointed to a curtain beside the shelf. That little corner became a symbol of space for young Mridula.
The author-poet Sukrita Paul’s relentless endeavour to carve out her own niche, her own space under the sun, is very similar. This daughter of noted Urdu writer Joginer Paul decided early in life that she wouldn’t tread in her father’s footsteps. The result? She has done no fiction, yet as a poet she has carved out her own identity. They share a roof alright.
The struggles of women across the border have been similar. While some like good old Kishwar Naheed, who had to study from home for her high school certificate, and Zehra Nigah had to fight a well-entrenched patriarchal order, more recently, authors like Kamila Shamsie and Uzma Aslam Khan have turned the notions of fighting for space on their head. For them the struggle is less social, more literal, partly like Mridula’s curtain-shelf story. Kamila, as a Pakistani author on the international stage, is often in the public glare. She gets treated like a political commentator. But when it comes to her novels, there are no shortcuts. Then she needs her brain to be empty, her phone off the hook, and no emails. Unlike more senior pros, Kamila makes do with a stretch of a few weeks when she writes and writes. “I need focus and concentration with no disturbance, not even emails. I don’t know of a writer who can write in a distracted way,” she shared with me on her last India visit.
Her countrywoman Uzma, too, defies all preconceived notions of writers. Not quite the loner that many writers are said to be, Uzma maintains her blog regularly and, as one noticed earlier, she is almost too intrepid. She herself regards writing to be almost a three-dimensional, physical act. “I have to be able to see the structure I’m building the way I would expect to see a sculpture or a building.”
If for Uzma writing is often more a physical construct with few societal obstacles, for somebody like Kiran Desai, it is the early years spent in peace and content that probably help when it comes to writing today: fame and quietude go hand in hand. This talented daughter of Anita Desai spent many a year in Delhi and Kalimpong. The cities then provided ample space for leisurely walks and unhindered thoughts. Those quiet years probably stood her in good stead when it came to penning Inheritance of Loss. Incidentally, so singular and cocooned was Kiran’s life that there were no publicists or even journalists at home though her mom had a steady readership.
If Kiran found her home an oasis of peace, it was quite different for Tamil author Salma, who is now happily read in English too. A school drop-out, she got married at 20, and got no encouragement or even ‘permission’ from her husband to write. For 10 years her poems waited to be published. So, Rokkiah (Salma’s original name) adopted a pen name and soon courted fame. As her photos came to be splashed in newspapers, even her husband changed for the better. She could write from home. And in a quiet dignified way join the likes of Mridula, Sukrita, Kishwar and the rest. Some fought for concrete inches at home, more often though the fight has been against the established social order.