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Voices behind the words

THE first impression the book makes is a sense of intimacy. Written in a question-answer format and preceded by a representative piece of the writer, editor Joel Kuortti chooses seven contemporary Indian women fiction writers and poets: Shashi Deshpande, Shama Futehally, Githa Hariharan, Anuradha Marwah Roy, Mina Singh, Lakshmi Kannan and Anna Sujatha Mathai. The common strand binding them all is that they write in English, though one or two are bilingual. On the choice of these particular writers, Kuortti says that the aim was "to locate writers with a variety of backgrounds" and in various professions (other than writing ). And of course, their coming from all the faiths, if that's important. At least the editor thinks so.

Kuortti teaches English literature in Finland and the blurb says that he is interested in Indian women's writing. That he has done considerable research and reading before interviewing the writers comes across well. Wisely, he has not allowed the interviewer's voice to dominate and has let the women speak of their own development as writers, their pain and happiness in the process, as also their views on current English writing in the country. This makes the book an interesting read as well as revealing — not in the way books about secret lives of celebrities are, which leave the readers salivating for more, but providing a glimpse into the inner urge and experience that have shaped their writing.

The debate over "woman writing", that is, if there is a particular style and content that distinguishes it from "general" writing, has been in the foray for quite sometime. Many writers, including the ones featuring here, choose to distance themselves from being called "feminists" as it stamps them in a particular mould. "Everything is read from a feminist angle... I want to be as a novelist." (Deshpande). Nevertheless, the values and attitude that come through in their creative work have definite feminist overtones, call it humanist if you may, a term preferred by many. It could also be a spin-off from the post-Feminism introspection since the 1990s as the persisting rigidity and dogma, what Laxmi Kannan calls "prescriptive feminism," has made feminists somewhat ghettoised in the larger society. But the fact remains that the spurt of women writers in English started in the 1980s in India when the feminist movement was at its height.

As for "women experience", it is interesting to note that some of these writers took up writing seriously while experiencing motherhood. From their own confessions, it was horrendously stressful to manage all these — bringing up babies, household duties, writing. But it was also one of the most creative periods and led later maturing into full-time careers as writers.

Besides the personal lives as writers other relevant issues come up too in the book: Is the chasm between the rural and "English-educated" woman increasing? Does the "different" readership also add to it? Why pride in the woman being a writer later turns into hostility in the family when the content doesn't fall into socially approved themes? Has anything changed at all? "...sometimes change is only a veneer" (Hariharan). But then Kannan also reminds of the need to recognise that society is changing too and today many men are sensitive to "women" but are clubbed together as "men" — a hostile entity.

The musings from these creative, and successful, women echo many voices who are not necessarily writers. Connoisseurs of English writing in India as well as those looking for sharing "woman to woman" camaraderie should find the book appealing.

The production is generally good. However, more attention should have been paid to the dust jacket. Commas missing or typos like "Desphande" (sic) doesn't enhance a book of this stature.

Tense Past, Tense Present: Women Writing in English, edited by Joel Kuortti, Stree, Rs 450.


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