When Lady Courage Wields Her Pen

Let me start by confessing that I am embarrassed that it has taken me a year to read the books that I had bought last year, and write about them. There has just been so much to read through the year, that I kept putting off reading the books that I had bought at last year’s Goa Arts and Literature Festival. My loss, entirely.

It was a year ago at GALF 2018 that I had the privilege to hear two Indian writers speak about their writing careers. I am talking of the elegant, feisty and courageous female duo who have been flag bearers of writing by Indian women for several years: Shashi Deshpande and Shanta Gokhale. As I had written in my post last year on GALF 2018, Shashi Deshpande delivered the keynote address inaugurating the festival, where she spoke of extremely critical issues for writing in India. Most important were the need for democratic freedoms to enable free expression and the courage to speak one’s mind, even if it were against the mood of the times. She openly spoke of the space for free expression shrinking in India and dissident voices being hushed; indeed, intellectuals even being “put away”.

Reading her book Writing from The Margin & Other Essays, one gets the feeling that as a woman writer, she has certainly lived her life on many planes. She deals with issues to do with the traditional roles of Indian women, women in writing careers, the changes taking place in Indian literature, why she is a feminist and several others. All of them have woman at the centre, and her grappling with not just change but with the forces of patriarchy. During her conversation with Maria Aurora Couto at GALF last year, she did talk of her rather liberal and cosmopolitan upbringing, even though she and Maria went to school and college in Dharwad, Karnataka, not in a big city. However, Dharwad was then a hub of intellectual ferment and cultural activity and as a place of learning, it attracted some of the finest minds both as faculty and students. Maria Couto remarked how Shashi was greatly influenced by her father, especially on the intellectual front.

The book, in fact, begins with a dedication to her father: “To my father, Adya Rangacharya (1904-1984) a man of ideas and a fiercely independent thinker”. In her essay of the book’s title, Writing from The Margin, she writes about how being a woman writer writing about women’s issues, one tends to be labelled as a writer to be read only by women. She writes of two kinds of marginalization that she has personally faced as a writer: First, that as a woman writing about women, her stories were perceived to be of interest only to women. “Why don’t you give this to a women’s magazine?” was the response she often heard from editors. She asks rhetorically if writing for women is somehow supposed to be less cerebral and not among “important issues”.

The second kind of marginalization was that she writes in English, and despite all the recent attention that Indian writing in English has been getting, her name would often feature “among others”, which she took to mean an also-ran. And she wonders why it is that women’s aspirations are always small in Hindi films: chhotisi duniya, chhotisi asha, chhotasa sansar (small world, small hopes, small life).

In another essay, Why I Am A Feminist, Shashi Deshpande asks why so many women are embarrassed to call themselves feminists these days. She starts with a reference to a particular issue of Time magazine discussing a book by Susan Faludi, which says that 63% of American women reject feminism. Likewise, Shashi notices a reluctance on the part of many Indian women, including many writers, to call themselves feminists as if it had become a dirty word, discredited of its goals and true meaning. She goes on to argue that feminism had done so much for women already, because it was not about “behaving like a man”, something it is often accused of, but about demanding an equality of the sexes, of equal rights and privileges.

Shashi Deshpande (left) in conversation with Maria Aurora Couto at GALF 2018

In other essays she discusses equally relevant and important subjects, such as women’s roles, writing for a local or global audience, chosen language of writing, and many others. Her incisive and insightful thoughts and ability to see both sides of a point of view with great clarity make for engaging reading. In the essay, Of Kitchens and Goddesses, she writes about traditional Indian women – mostly her own immediate and extended family – and the importance of the kitchen and cooking in their lives. She writes of years of hard work these women had to do in the kitchen to earn the position of a goddess in the home, called Annapurna in India (the goddess of food, the provider).

“I have a small statue of a goddess with me, a goddess who holds a ladle as large as herself in both her hands. She is Annapurna, the goddess of bounty, given to brides on their wedding day. Marking out their roles for them. Henceforth, you are Annapurna, the provider. But to place your statue among your gods, and to worship her, was not enough to make you an Annapurna. There was a long hard way to be gone before you could reach the pedestal.”

This is one section in the entire book, where I feel Shashi Deshpande might have sold women short. By romanticising the hard work done in the kitchen by Indian women, which is at best a chore and at worst, drudgery, she has taken attention away from the need for Indian women to step out of the bounds of their homes and traditional roles that society, dominated by men, has set for them. I say this as someone who appreciates good food and who also enjoys cooking. The point is not that women have to slog in the kitchen in order to become a goddess in someone’s eyes, but that women then and even now are not doing it out of choice. And sadly, I have to say that many women who do have that choice do not exercise it often enough. In my own family, I have observed the massive changes across generations of women and ours is a family that has always done its own cooking at home.  My grandmothers did not have a choice but to cook, my mother would prefer not to cook, but often had to, along with my father, and I like to cook but of my own choosing and on my own terms. My life has certainly never revolved around the kitchen and I am sure neither has Shashi Deshpande’s.

I suppose my reaction to reading this essay was a little sharper, because I have always believed that women In India have only three roles provided for them; you are either a goddess, a slave or a whore. You have little or no life outside of these bounds. While she has extolled the virtues of women in the kitchen and of taking pride in being housewives, as a feminist, I wish she had also focused on how many women would choose such a life today. The unpaid aspect of the work deserves attention too. I say this also noting the huge drop in the labour force participation rate for women in this country; it has dropped sharply in the past decade and paradoxically, because families are doing better financially and so there is less need for women to work. “…Marking out their roles for them…” is precisely the mindset women are up against.

That said, it is a pleasure to read an anthology of Shashi Deshpande’s essays, quite a different experience from reading her column or essay in a newspaper or magazine, every now and then. You get the full range and depth of her thinking on a variety of subjects, including Globalisation of Literature, in which she mentions the joys of owning a Parker fountain pen and always stopping to buy one on her travels overseas, as well as the idea of good literature travelling across countries and how much the richer we are for it.

If Shashi Deshpande is writing from the margin, Shanta Gokhale is an engaged observer. Her book of selected writings, The Engaged Observer, is a set of works that the author, Jerry Pinto, and she have together chosen for republication. It comprises essays (mostly newspaper and magazine columns) on a variety of subjects ranging from theatre, Mumbai city and feminism to music, Marathi culture and this grand nation, as well as fiction in the form of short stories and plays. I had the privilege of hearing her speak as well at last year’s GALF and she too comes across as a sensitive, no-nonsense writer, with a penchant for observing life around her. What is a writer, if not a keen observer, one might well ask?

Shanta’s writings are not so much her reflections on life, as much as writings triggered by specific events. Obituaries, for example, on Vijay Tendulkar and Habib Tanvir and a piece on the restoration of Prithvi Theatre’s 100-year-old Gaiety Theatre in Shimla in a section of the book on theatre. You can sense her deep affinity for theatre as a genre and as a medium. In that sense, her observations are not those of a casual observer noting a particular dimension of life from a distance, but from up close, warts and all.

In the section on Mumbai, for example, there is a piece from 2003 titled The Heart of the Matter is Missing, in which she writes about Mumbai’s journalists suddenly lamenting that Mumbai has lost its heart because people die and their bodies are discovered a year or more later. She writes of the ways ancient Hindu texts codified human emotions from sringar (love) and hasya (joy) to karuna (compassion) and veera (heroism) and goes on to say that we aren’t so sure in today’s world perhaps because many love to hark back to the days of the chawls (cramped one-room tenements) in Mumbai with their common toilets. These have been glorified in many a Hindi film, as places where the spirit of community triumphed over all odds and the challenges of simply making it through the day. But then, there were the lower-caste chawls and the upper-caste chawls, she points out, and says that while it is sad that people should die and nobody know of their death, it is not because Mumbai has lost its heart, but because Mumbai allows people to live their lives the way they want.

Similarly, in an article on Marathi culture, she writes of the mascot of Maharashtriana: the person from Pune. She draws a fine distinction between a Puneite and a Punekar. The first, she tells us, is a semantic blunder.

“The weak middle of the word just doesn’t describe the man. We must call him Punekar instead, with its no-nonsense ‘k’ and its rolling ‘r’.”

Delightfully described, Shanta Gokhale tells us of the traits of the Punekar and parsimony ruling his life like “a pair of jeweler’s scales located somewhere at the back of his head in which pleasantries are carefully weighed against grams and tolas before being dispensed”. She says that traits that most people would find rude and anti-social are instead considered high watermarks of Pune culture.

Shanta Gokhale (second from left) with Jerry Pinto (extreme left) as Ram Guha launches her book, The Engaged Observer, along with Arundhathi Subramaniam at GALF 2018.

About Shanta Gokhale’s fiction, there are six pieces, four short stories and two plays. And while I didn’t find the short stories great reading, because a short story must build tension in a plot fast enough to lead to a denouement, I thoroughly enjoyed the two plays featured in the book. They are takes on the Bard and are beautifully constructed and written. You can tell the special place that theatre has in her heart. I Am Not What I Am is an interaction between Othello, Desdemona and Iago, in the green room, after a staging of the play Othello. It deals with what the Bard would make of their staging, racism, murder and is a verbal duel that the Bard himself might have approved. The second, Rosemary for Remembrance, is a conversation between Ophelia and Gertrude and is banter between the two women after their death about their past lives in the Bard’s plays. Hamlet and Desdemona make cameo appearances while the two discuss love and… you guessed it, death!

And how can I end this piece without mentioning The Real Joy of Cooking, in which Shanta Gokhale provides a fitting rejoinder to Mr Pramod Navalkar’s weekly column in Mid-Day. She takes on the minister of culture who notices a surge in the number of restaurants in Mumbai and attributes it to the fact that women must have stopped cooking. With her sardonic wit and keen sense of observation, she wields her pen like a veritable kitchen knife, slicing and dicing Mr. Navalkar’s observations on Indian culture and the kitchen, until his arguments are in shreds. A little sample:

Mr Navalkar: “The stove is the repository of culture in every home. It is the magnet that holds the family together. It is the arena in which the housewife proves herself and the fountainhead of all homely happiness.”

Shanta Gokhale: “I have a Mughal miniature in my kitchen. In it, a woman in immaculate white sits in a kitchen. She’s stirring something in a pot… I stare at her face closely to see if I can spot some trace of happiness. Instead her face is filled with sadness. Why should that be? We see that this Radha has been kept in the kitchen by Krishna, while he, her lord and master, disports with some other woman.”

Quite in contrast with Shashi Deshpande’s piece on kitchens and goddesses, you’d have to say. But what the two writers share in common is a strong sense of solidarity with womenfolk around the world, their understanding of life in India and how it has changed, their ability to make us see life in the tiny cracks and fissures in our society, and the courage to speak their minds.

One is glad to have heard and read both these ladies of courage, and I hope that more women will be spared “the invisibility and silence in public life”, that Virginia Woolf had warned of and that Shashi Deshpande quotes in Writing from the Margin.

Let us work towards a world where women will not have to write from the margin.  

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