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A different bonding... beyond stereotypes

Stepping beyond the shadow of men, women writers are revealing it all these days. ANJANA RAJAN speaks to four of them at the U.K.-South Asian Women Writers' Conference now on in Delhi under the aegis of the British Council.

Photos: S. Subramanium.

WOMEN OF THE WORLD UNITE: Ruwanthie De Chickera, Rachel Holmes, Jane Rogers and Shashi Deshpande at the UK-South Asian Women Writers' Conference in New Delhi.

RUWANTHIE DE Chickera, an award winning Sri Lankan playwright and director, believes that theatre has the power to help marginalized people communicate with the mainstream. Her work "with people who do not have access to theatre normally" including those in prisons and mental health institutes implements this belief. She has also established Stages, a theatre project for the young. "Middle of Silence" - a play she has written "mostly in English" - was performed in India under Arundhati Raja's direction a few years ago.

Schooled in Singhalese medium with a Bachelors in English literature and a Masters in Applied Theatre from Manchester, U.K., Ruwanthie - like many on the subcontinent - does not have a routine answer to whether Singhalese is her mother tongue. "It depends what you mean by mother tongue."

Terming herself "not a huge fan of gender compartmentalisation", Ruwanthie is involved in multilingual productions and translating from Singhalese to English and English to Singhalese. If works in Indian languages suffer from bad translations that miss the flavour and dexterity of the original, Ruwanthie feels simply that "Sri Lanka suffers from a lack of translations." Not trained in the field, she has developed her own approach to translation, aware that "you have to be a master of both languages."

"Most translations deal with the content. Translations should actually capture the rhythms of the language." She feels English, different as it is from the earthy Eastern tongues, can be nuanced so as to be able to bring out even different dialects within a language. In her own translations, she endeavours to make the sentences as far as possible of the same length as the original. Though she concedes content is important, the "form, structure and rhythm" need to be given equal weight.

After all, she points out, "Language is not about what you are saying, but how you say it."

RACHEL HOLMES, a former English literature teacher and managing editor of - a website she helped develop - has recently left her job to concentrate on writing. Brought up in South Africa - which was "very important in shaping me and my interests" - she seems to revel in tracing the little known contours of historical figures. Her first book, published in May 2003, was a biography of Dr. James Barry, the eminent 19th Century physician, for years assumed to be a woman who disguised herself as a man to take advantage of medical education then not available to girls. Rachel's research led her to other conclusions, and "I was determined that I would reclaim this woman for history." That was how "Scanty Particulars" came about, the story of person then called a hermaphrodite and now referred to as an intersexual.

The next book - "Hottentot Venus" - is about Sarah Baartman, another 19th Century trailblazer, "a peasant from the eastern cape who became the first black showgirl."

The Internet has opened up a whole new medium for publication and dissemination of information. Rachel agrees it has affected writing and reading in a variety of ways. Among its advantages is the quickness of access to huge amounts of information and removal of hierarchies. Citing examples of book reviews by ordinary readers influencing customers more than the Amazon commissioned reviews by eminent critics they were posted next to, she points out the Internet has been beneficial rather than detrimental to the book business. As for the lack of language discipline this huge uncharted medium has spawned, she feels it is "soluble" and made a start in her job by carrying over some relics of print culture, like copy editing, subbing and proofing. The business and academic aspects of books hold equal attraction for Rachel Holmes, a writer at home in the world of words, whether printed or virtual.

JANE ROGERS, British novelist, has authored six books and writes for radio and television. Her themes include the "difficult and dangerous extremes," of parental love and "cycles of love and rejection." If one novel is about a woman who abandons her child to escape the shackles of attachment, in another, the story is told from the point of view of an abandoned daughter. But her forthcoming work, "The Voyage Home" is "completely different".

On the question of commonality between the participants from South Asia and those from Britain, Jane accepts that while there are differences there are also issues "we have in common as women." Admitting that initially she was wary of the label `women writers', she points out, "We are not going back 30 years, ranting and raving about feminism," and says the level of discussion has been sophisticated, so that, "In terms of hearing each other and sharing each others' experiences and asking where we are going, we are in a sense moving on."

But there is no denying that "Women's writing is seen as a separate area in the public world." Whether it is review space in serious newspapers, or the ratio of approximately two thirds men to one third women observed in the conferring of the big prizes such as the Booker, women's writing is not allowed an equal footing. Since women publish more books, she says, this situation is paradoxical and needs to be tackled.

The networking in itself is practical, as it is difficult to get hold of each other's works in Britain. A concrete advantage expected of this conference is an anthology of South Asian and British women writers' works. For now, it is the access to new experiences, like hearing Dalit author Bama, whose context, "is so hard for us to understand, and yet so important to understand."

SHASHI DESHPANDE is one of India's leading writers in English. And since English is not the strongest language for a majority of the population, "we are marginalized, but in a way we get more prominence than we should," she says, referring to easier recognition in international and even Delhi circles. "It's a paradox," but she also considers herself "as writing another Indian language," and points out that English readership is growing. It is no longer only the privileged classes, she says, as the middle-class is increasingly becoming educated and taking interest in the genre.

On the role of the Sahitya Akademi in promoting Indian literature over the past half century, Shashi Deshpande avers, "I always had a great admiration for the Sahitya Akademi", citing its prodigious output in terms of translation and publication of works in all Indian languages and providing a common platform to authors across the country. "But," she adds, I think it is stifled in its own red tape," and also feels its hard work is wasted in bad marketing. "You have to be profit-oriented."

And though herself a Sahitya Akademi awardee for her novel, "That Long Silence" she feels the Akademi has outlived its role as a distributor of prizes to encourage authors. The pressure groups and lobbying are also a shame, and "anything that concerns itself with something as creative as literature should be separate from the Government".

What the Government ought to look into, she suggests, is the availability of grants to authors to pursue their writing. "Nobody ever thinks of the finances of writing," she says. As in most of the arts, the talk is about creativity and imagination and less about the practical aspects. Other countries have bodies like arts councils for such purposes, and if the Sahitya Akademi performed such a role, "That would be a far greater service to literature."

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