January 17, 2020
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Saying The F-Word

In which women must choose between beauty and intelligence, family and career, men and themselves.

Saying The F-Word
Inner Lines: The Zubaan Anthology Of Stories By indian women
By Edited By Urvashi Butalia
Zubaan Pages: 246; Rs: 295

Contemporary feminism tends to look back to the seventies as a time of vitality. But nostalgia for seventies-style feminism obscures the fact that the extremity of its positions against men and the institution of family may have had something to do with its subsequent discrediting. A new kind of feminism wanted coexistence, if not harmony; it sought equality with men, not extermination of them.

For some Indian feminists, the struggle between the sexes is still raging and no gains have been made in the battle. This viewpoint ignores the presence of powerful women CEOs because the "time-honored division of labour ensures that women’s roles are generally seen as subordinate." It ignores writers who are among the country’s and the world’s best selling authors because "[t]he general truth that women’s writing is, by and large, given a subordinate status to men’s writing still holds across the world."

I am quoting from the introduction to Inner Lines: The Zubaan Anthology of Stories by Indian Women, which uses radical feminism as a template. The volume includes Anjana Appachana, a writer who lives in the US, but not others such as Jhumpa Lahiri, Bharati Mukherjee, Chitra Divakaruni, or Kiran Desai. It ignores a vast number of younger voices. Its choice of material is driven by ideology, by the old stereotypes of seventies-style feminism in which women must choose between beauty and intelligence, family and career, men and themselves.

Thus, patriarchy is the enemy, and on this slender plotline hangs the narrative. In Mahasweta Devi’s The Wet-Nurse, motherhood is an addiction and "once you are hooked it is difficult to withdraw even after the milk has run dry." In Appachana’s Incantations, a woman who is raped by her brother in law comes to see her husband’s lovemaking as rape. But she does nothing to save herself. Ambai’s story presents the kitchen as a prison as well as a queendom. When a matriarch dies the language collapses into broken lines that never quite become poetry: "How could you think that/your strength came/from food that was given in the appropriate measure…" Indira Goswami’s The Offspring is defeated by language. In its last climactic lines, a villager speaks these implausible words: "He was the scion of my lineage, a part of my flesh and blood! I will touch him!"

In a collection such as this, a contemporary sensibility is a rare and beautiful thing. In Manjula Padmanabhan’s Stains, language and narrative come together in a sly parable that hinges on the notion of menstruation as ecstasy. The story is told from the point of view of an American woman, and it embodies ideas of race as well as gender. The enemy here is an Indian man, but the real villain may be his hidebound, prejudiced mother. Best of all, the story shows, it does not tell. And it points the way toward a different kind of anthology, an inclusive volume that will embody the extraordinary quality and range of stories by Indian women.

A shorter version of this appeared in the print magazine.

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