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Here, there, everywhere: South Asian women writers are going places

There was a time, not so long ago, when the category of South Asian fiction evoked the faces of a handful of authors, almost all of them male. Then came the years of the rise of writers like Kamila Shamsie, Jhumpa Lahiri, and suddenly the South Asian literary scene was buzzing with women authors.

So much so that if one were to map the trends in contemporary South Asian literature, perhaps the most noticeable phenomenon would be the number of women authors coming to the fore in recent years.

Changed marketplace

When the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, the short list of which will be out three days from now, drew up a list of trends on the basis of the entries they received this year, they found that 47% of the total entries were from women writers, of which 40% were debutants.

Originals and translations taken together, 52% of the books were by women. Not just that, the incidence of women authors has risen from 35-40% in 2011-13 to 47% in 2019.

So what changed in the intervening years to encourage such a large number of women to start writing and, more importantly, start appearing in award longlists? Was it – a (much-needed) rectification in the publishing ecosystem, a shift in prevalent taste, a recognition that has been long overdue, or simply a surge in literary ambition?

The chair of the DSC jury, Harish Trivedi, ascribes the trend to an inspirational chain reaction: “The emergence in the 1990s of Arundhati Roy, Jhumpa Lahiri, Kiran Desai and Kamila Shamsie probably helped launch the ships of numerous hopeful women writers. One sometimes forgets that literature comes not just out of life but equally out of ambient literature.”

Amrita Mahale, author of the critically acclaimed Milk Teeth, puts it down to a shift in attention and the influence of social media. “There is an increased appetite for new voices, new perspectives, and that has meant that women writers and translated works have got more attention. One can’t ignore social media here, especially the rising popularity of book bloggers and literary influencers,” she says. Among the latter, she cites Resh Susan (Book Satchel), and Sharin and Anuya (Books on Toast), whose blogs have highlighted voices that might otherwise have gone unheard.

Mahale is not alone in thinking that the marketplace has changed. Madhuri Vijay, author of The Far Field,also believes that readers and publishers are discovering within themselves a hunger and a willingness to support books that don’t conform to age-old ideas about women’s writing. Both Mahale and Vijay say that there has always been an abundance of good literature from women writers in South Asia; if there’s a surge in visibility now, it is reader- and publisher-led.

Navigating continents

Vijay’s opinion about this new literature smashing stereotypes is confirmed by a few of the recent titles. If we associate the home and hearth with women’s fiction, these books travel places. Contemporary diasporic South Asian writers have their characters jumping across many oceans in the span of a novel, and one of the motifs, in fact, is homelessness or in-betweenness. In this context, Trivedi mentions Fatima Bhutto’s novel, The Runaways, whichbegins with a woman walking to the Karachi airport to board a flight to London, and Shubhangi Swarup’s Latitudes of Longing, which takes off from the Andamans to explore the outer reaches of the Raj in far-flung regions.

The protagonists straddle multiple cultures, belonging everywhere and nowhere. Mahale, whose novel is about a changing Bombay, says that her itinerant childhood gave birth to her fascination with cities and to navigate a South Asian city is to negotiate its uneven modernity. She finds that in revisiting domestic settings, one works out their parallels to the global.

As the personal becomes inseparable from the political, we notice the ubiquity of violence in contemporary novels. Vijay says, “Violence is such an integral part of our social fabric that it would be dishonest not to include it in our writing.” She describes writing as an extended form of scrutiny, and it is this scrutiny that brings to light the politics involved in our most private interactions.

Becoming a woman

Chandrakanta, author of Saga Of Satisar and A Street in Srinagar,talks about the growing number of women writers who use their work to voice protest against gender disparity, highlight the problems of political unrest, the hardships of immigrant life, and the loss of inheritance in certain regions. She refers to Pakistani author Tehmina Durrani, whose autobiography, My Feudal Lord,traces her progress from an elitist housewife to an emancipated individual fighting for equal rights and women’s empowerment.

Chandrakanta elucidates how the common cultural ethos of South Asian countries unites us: “Simone de Beauvoir believed that one is not born a woman, one becomes one. Right from the birth of a child, society sets different norms for boys and girls. Girls in Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan are married before the age of 16. Heavy school dropout rates in the case of the girl child and malnutrition are some of the niggling issues, especially in rural sections of society. Today’s empowered women writers have revolted against this disparity in their works.”

Despite similarities among cultures, it is still difficult to capture the spirit of South Asia. There is a constant jostling for space, a never-ending negotiation between the old and the new.

But it is not just women who are re-examining the given in their novels. Male novelists too are engaging with women’s traditional role in South Asian societies, questioning them and smashing the old constructs. Trivedi cites the example of Amitabha Bagchi’s Half the Night is Gone, which stages a tense and long discussion about just how powerless or powerful women are, during which Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas is quoted: “What cannot a strong ‘powerless woman’ do?” “In Perumal Murugan’s A Lonely Harvest, the heroine pays for one night of sanctioned pleasure out of wedlock and gets a lifetime of misery,” he says.

Taken together, the recent titles coming out of South Asia, whether by women or by men, reflect the realities of the subcontinent, and in particular, its constant negotiation between tradition and modernity.

The writer is a freelance author and illustrator.

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 4:14:53 AM |

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