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Women and words: forging new bonds

A regional consultation of women's writers organised by Women's World (India) was marked by the release of their latest book `Story Lines: Conversations with Women's Writers' and deliberations about marginalisation of women writers and political censorship, writes R. UMA MAHESHWARI.

THE SHARING of intimate spaces - women's spaces - has yielded a movement in contemporary Indian literature. The movement literally shifts (as one can gauge from the titles) from The Guarded Tongue: Women's Writing and Censorship in India, through The Tongue Set Free: Women Writers Speak about Censorship towards Speaking in Tongues: Gender, Censorship and Voice in India and now the latest, Story Lines: Conversations with Women Writers. These works exemplify the validity and authenticity of women's experiences with the written word.

On May 2, the book, - Story Lines... , was released by the eminent academic, literary critic and writer Meenakshi Mukherjee . The book release itself was part of the Regional Consultation of Women Writers organised by Women's World (India) held between May 2 and May 4. Twenty-five writers and critics from different States participated in the Consultation.

In 1999, Asmita, in collaboration with Women's World - an international network of feminist writers addressing gender-based censorship with projects in Latin America, Asia, Europe, Africa and North America - launched a project on Women and Censorship addressing similar concerns. The aim was to form a network that would not only forge bonds between women writers but also act as a facilitating forum for women's writings (in Indian languages, including English) to be published.

The network was also envisaged as a space for intense, intimate interactions between women writers on issues that most concerned the act of putting pen to paper - the environs they lived in, the limits imposed on the freedom of their expression and other issues. The process started with a series of workshops in 10 languages and interviews with women writers that finally led to a National Colloquium of Women Writers, in July 2001. The success of the process, which led to the four publications mentioned above, has prompted the setting up of Women's World (India) - launched formally on May 2 - a nationwide network of writers, cross-language translators, and women's groups.

The book - Storylines... , is acompilation of 17 interviews of writers and poets of eminence writing in different languages, and includes, Ilampirai, Bama (Tamil), Shafeeq Fatima Shera (Urdu), Sarup Dhruv, Dhiruben Patel (Gujarati), Nayantara Sehgal (English), Nabaneeta Dev Sen (Bangla), Sara Aboobacker (Kannada), Volga (Telugu), Rukmini Bhaya Nair (English), among others. Ammu Joseph, Vasanth Kannabiran, Ritu Menon, Gouri Selvi and Volga have edited the book.

(From Left to Right) Vasanth Kannabiran, Ritu Menon, Meenakshi Mukherjee and Kalpana Kannabiran.

The interviews reveal amazing facets of these literary figures - written in a candid style, devoid of literary flourish and hence genuinely urge a connection between the writer and the reader. As Meenakshi Mukherjee said at the function, the book combines "the suspension and absorption of a novel" and allows "scope for meandering" - in the interview format as writers express themselves freely.

There are women speaking of the ways they negotiated with time and their immediate environs to sit and write. For instance, Gujarati novelist Dhiruben Patel (whose story, Bhavani Bhavai, was made into a film by the same name by Ketan Mehta, without giving credit to her) says, "People do not take writers seriously. If I am frying puris in the kitchen that is considered work, but if I am writing and don't step out to talk to people it is considered unforgivably rude."

For Tamil dalit writer Bama, writing itself started as the singular means to express her deepest anxieties and memories of her own life. She says, "the thought of leaving home, work and family to concentrate on a book is thrilling but unreal, like a dream. Especially for middle-class women writers who are past 40."

At the consultation meet, Vasanth Kannabiran (Asmita), Ritu Menon (Kali for Women) and Volga - three of the core members of the network, - shared their ideas about the significance, scope and current status of the Women's World (India) network.

Vasanth says, "When we started, the whole idea was to talk to women writing in different languages on the issue of gender-based censorship - what are the kinds of obstacles they encounter when they write and what is the difference about women writing and `general' writing."

"More and more issues came up gradually. It was a success - so many women came together and the interaction was very creative and productive. There was a need expressed by women writers for some kind of support to women - it was felt it would be a good idea to start Women's World (India) as a national project."

Ritu Menon points out, "Discussions on censorship in India usually get grounded by the comment that there is no censorship - there is freedom of expression and the State is not heavy handed; few things have been banned, so why should we speak of gender-based censorship?"

"It was to try and understand those circumstances to get women writers together to speak about it. All of them spoke of the many kinds of censorship that are in place, implicit sometimes, sometimes not so subtle - informal ways of silencing, among others."

"Once that was articulated, all the other needs - to break the silence, to communicate, to be read and understood and to have a place in literary establishment and history - were voiced. For the first time this is an attempt at the national level to do an in-depth exchange within and across languages. There is great need for some kind of mechanism that will enable this to continue."

But `women writers' is not a blanket category so far as this network is concerned. As Volga points out, "We are talking of women writers who are writing with a definite perspective - on some democratic values, women's rights, against fundamentalism et al. We are guided by certain principles. And those women who respect these values can come together. They may have differences among themselves - how they write, in terms of language, caste. But those can be overcome. The idea is to form a broader base."

When asked whether there is any plan to give space to `oral' literature - which is marginalisedVasanth responds, "It will depend on the kind of people who will work with Women's World - to look at oral documenting, or need to look at oral traditions, to get together and speak. Right now we don't have an agenda like that - we do recognise the importance of this, having worked on oral histories ourselves. But we don't want to diffuse the focus. We are talking of marginalisation of women writers - a highly literate, articulate community, yet marginalised. If you begin to address this first, it will filter into other areas and bring other issues to the fore."

One of the important issues discussed at the meeting was political censorship. Vasanth informs that writers addressed their roles in a communalised context. Himanshu Sharad says she began to write on fundamentalism only after the Gujarat riots. She laments that although her work has been published but no reviews have been done. "And the literary circles have dropped me out," she rues.

"At least there is some group which has been formed to tackle such issues. With that the possibility of getting together with a concrete response on all distressing issues is certainly more. This is the beginning," Vasanth chips in enthusiastically.

Asked why the media was shut off from the sessions, she says, "It is because of the nature of the writer and nature of writing itself. Discussions are intensive, serious, focussed and intimate. Writers do not want to make public statements. They are saying many things here, because an exclusive space has been created for them. As for exchange with the media, there was a discussion to link up our platform with the national network of women journalists."

One of the very significant outcomes of the three days of sharing between writers has been - a plan to work more seriously on communalism in the context of Gujarat. Mangai, one of the participants, informs that there are plans to bring out a collective document of voices of women writers against communalism. But it is an idea that needs further deliberation and discussions to materialise.

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