The missing Indian women essayists
Sumana Roy Sumana Roy | 03 Mar, 2023
(Illustrations: Saurabh Singh)
FOR IT IS A PERENNIAL PUZZLE WHY NO woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet.” I was reminded of this sentence from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own when I found myself with a copy of Arvind Krishna Mehrotra’s The Book of Indian Essays (2020). I leafed through the contents a few times—where were my contemporaries in it, the women essayists I’ve enjoyed reading in the last two decades of this century? “The reflective essay, the luminous memoir, the essay disguised as a story, the memorable prefatory article, the newspaper column that transcends its humdrum origins, the gossip piece that oozes literariness, the forgotten flower in the long-dead magazine, the satirical putdown—all these find place here”—writes the publisher of the anthology of essays. Was it possible that none of my female contemporaries had written in any of these sub-genres of the essay?
When I teach this section from A Room of One’s Own, widely anthologised as ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’ in class, I begin with an experiment. We’ll play a game, I say. I’ll name a common noun, you will respond by giving me the first proper noun that comes to your head. Many of them close their eyes—it’s an endearing sight, watching the students prepare to focus. I warm up with an innocent word: “sweet”. The answers come rushing out, a variety that feels like an edible version of the Republic Day tableau of various Indian states. A couple more words and I utter the word that is the reason for this exercise. “Genius,” I say, almost prepared for the answers that will follow—Einstein, Einstein, Einstein—almost a chorus every term. It irritates me, of course, as it did Roland Barthes seventy years ago, whose essay, ‘The Brain of Einstein’ (Mythologies) I teach as a kind of complement text to ‘Shakespeare’s Sister’. Barthes’s essay, where he records Einstein’s complicity in adding to the ‘mythic’ aura of his genius, explains, in a way only this French writer and critic can, why there have been only two or three mentions of a woman among the four hundred students that have perhaps taken this course with me so far. Marie Curie, a few times; Arundhati Roy, once; “my mother,” an answer that came when I once taught a writing workshop to high-school students. I realise that nothing very much has changed since the time of Woolf—not in the classroom, and not in the anthology of Indian essays. Only a man can be a genius.
To emphasise the absent literary histories of women, Woolf literally goes to the margins—she quotes from a place rarely quoted from: the book’s index. “I went, therefore, to the shelf where the histories stand and took down one of the latest, Professor Trevelyan’s History of England. Once more I looked up Women, found ‘position of’ and turned to the pages indicated. “Wife-beating”, I read, “was a recognized right of man, and was practised without shame by high as well as low…” Led by Woolf’s example, I went to the other end of the book— the Contents pages of The Book of Indian Essays. Woolf had to look for the absent women in history in the index of the book of social history that she was reading; I am looking for the absent women in the Contents. Woolf was looking up the ‘Elizabethan age’. I decided to look at my century, and, going back, to the last quarter of the twentieth—in other words, the years since my birth. Was it possible that there have been so few women essayists since 1974?
Woolf challenges the male—masculine—understanding of history, of being about presences, about events and things that happened, by conjuring a history of absences, of what ‘might have been’. “A literary anthology also works as an alternative history,” says the book description of the anthology of Indian Essays. Woolf’s essay gives us an alternative history as well: “Women cannot write the plays of Shakespeare. Be that as it may, I could not help thinking, as I looked at the works of Shakespeare on the shelf, that the bishop was right at least in this; it would have been impossible, completely and entirely, for any woman to have written the plays of Shakespeare in the age of Shakespeare. Let me imagine, since facts are so hard to come by, what would have happened had Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith …” Woolf had to conjure the figure of Judith, an imagined woman, the ‘sister’ of a genius, to be able to conceive of a possible history. Mehrotra would have only needed to look at the literature of our time. Let us imagine, to borrow the phrase from Woolf, that he did look at the available literature, and, after doing so, did not find these women good enough to be in this anthology.
In an anthology such as this one, appropriated immediately by a professionalised academia and its stakeholders for canonisation, the women essayists of the first two decades of our twenty-first century are an absence like Woolf notices the absence of histories of women in Trevelyan’s book of social history. An anthology is not parliament—it is not a democracy, these arguments have been made ad nauseam, and, almost always, by men. When the “country’s most respected anthologist”—as his author bio on the book’s Amazon page describes him—decides to ignore an entire body of work by women of a certain generation, it cannot be read as a casual exclusion. For Mehrotra—whose essays I admire immensely, and whose writing I teach in my courses—has fought the anthology battle himself. His anthology, Twelve Modern Indian Poets, was a response to A. Parthasarathy’s anthology, a correction as it were, not just in terms of inclusions and exclusions, but of the articulation of an ambition and genealogy of Indian English poetry that hadn’t been made before. Mehrotra’s persuasive introduction and headnotes to the twelve poets he had chosen for his slim anthology became the canonised text on Indian university syllabi as I imagine this book of Indian essays will soon be. Eunice de Souza was the only woman in the selection of poets; Kamala Das wasn’t considered good enough to get in. I bring this up neither as accusation nor as another instalment of the identity politics battle. I only want to know—as reader, as writer, as woman—what it is that disqualifies my contemporaries, a generation of women writing about films and culture, politics and murderers, smoke and smoking and stadiums, about everything around us, with energy and immersion, from being given even groundling space in such an anthology?
Since there could be no personal reasons for the nature of such exclusions—something that cannot be said for some anthologies ofIndianEnglishpoetry—Iwillguessthatithastodowiththeform employed by these essayists. Form, tone, pitch, perhaps even subject—their divagation from the conservative idea of what an essay must look like. (It’s ironical—and, of course, much more—that most of the editors I’ve had the opportunity to work with, in English language publications in India, whether at the Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Caravan, Open, The Hindu, among others, have been women.) Paromita Vohra, one of the first cultural critics to record her frustration with such an attitude, of a deference to and practice of a limiting idea of both the literal and literary imagination, uses a phrase that I’ve found myself thinking of lately—“Bore mat kar yaar”. She is, quite obviously, subverting a phrase used by men for women’s writing, but it’s not of that alone that I’m thinking of.
Mani Kaul was trying to devise a form that would be able to hold in it the boredom of the woman’s life of making rotis endlessly for her itinerant bus driver-husband in Uski Roti; in Duvidha, another film about a woman’s waiting for her husband, who, too, has to be away to earn a living, Kaul turns to a folktale, as if to emphasise that the story of a woman’s waiting is longer than the life of the woman herself. In both the films, different as they are from each other, Kaul is trying to arrive at a form that acts as a unit of waiting, a female waiting, waiting in closed domestic spaces, a woman’s wait for her permanently travelling husband. Kaul hints at the obvious—women wait, men travel, in space as much as in time. As a philosopher of time, he wants his audience to experience what he understands as the form of female time.
What if this was to be reversed—if it was the woman who was travelling and the man was at home, and if it was a woman who was writing or making a film about that? How would one measure such time, what might be its unit? Anuradha Roy turns to the letter as a unit of time, of duration, and as a measure of waiting in her novel All the Lives We Never Lived. When I tried to write about a woman leaving her husband, a blind poet, in the care of their house help, I turned to the daily newspaper for timekeeping as much as to hold in it that highest unit of time—history. I have since then—it’s been about five years since my novel Missing was published—wondered why a male filmmaker, in trying to understand a woman’s waiting, turned to the domestic space, of the kitchen in one and bedroom in the other, while two women writers, Anuradha Roy and I, turned to a culture of literacy, of letters and newspapers, to record male waiting. What might have been our conditioning that made us gravitate to these ‘serious’ forms of history to hold male waiting?
I only want to know—as reader, as writer, as woman—what it is that disqualifies my contemporaries, a generation of women writing about films and culture, politics and murderers, smoke and smoking and stadiums, about everything around us, with energy and immersion, from being given even groundling space in an anthology
I PUT CJ HAUSER’S essay, ‘The Crane Wife’ in my syllabus immediately after reading it, a few months after its publication. Hauser tells the reader what the essay is ‘about’ in the opening sentence of her essay, where, as if bored by the pornographic demands of plot points, she gets it out of the way: “Ten days after I called off my engagement I was supposed to go on a scientific expedition to study the whooping crane on the gulf coast of Texas.” “Surely, I will cancel this trip,” she continues, “I thought, as I shopped for nylon hiking pants that zipped off at the knee. Surely, a person who calls off a wedding … Surely, I thought, as I tried on a very large and floppy hat …” What follows, with each sentence beginning with ‘surely’, is a seesaw-like rhythm in the movement of thought—what the world thinks she should be doing and what she was doing instead. Hauser is operating on the same principle as Woolf, except that she has gone a step further from just recording not just an absence but the consciousness of “what might have been” in the same sentence. It is interesting how both women turn to adverbs, Hauser to the refrain of ‘Surely … Surely … Surely’, Woolf to adverbial clauses. My students and I notice these things even as VS Naipaul’s dictum—“Use as few adverbs as possible”—plays as background score in my head. There’s also the form: the paragraphs in the opening section of the essay begin with the same phrase: ‘Ten days after’, ‘Ten days earlier’, ‘Ten days later’. It’s part of the rhythm of the essay that forces breaks, the way Orwell brakes in his essay about making tea, turning paragraphs into numbered points.
Maya Mashi’s language was what literary critics would call ‘found text’. But she was no Duchamp, and she was no Eliot—so no one bothered to acknowledge that her compulsive use of Bangla proverbs related to plant life in her conversations
Hauser’s essay, like the ten days-ten days-ten days rhythm of its opening section, works through three parallel narratives: Hauser’s autobiography, scientific details about the whooping crane, the Japanese folktale of the crane wife in which, a crane, after tricking a man into thinking that she was a woman, keeps plucking her feathers to become someone he can love. “Every morning, the crane-wife is exhausted, but she is a woman again. To keep becoming a woman is so much self-erasing work. She never sleeps. She plucks out all her feathers, one by one.” I read these lines thinking about what the woman writer must do to enter well-trodden forms—“self-erasing work”. Both Woolf and Hauser, separated by a century, are trying to liberate the essay from a male style and focus—while Woolf offers history as a record of ‘what might have been’, possible histories, Hauser turns to the folktale, where female histories have been preserved. Folktale, ‘thakurmar jhuli’, grandmother’s tales, bedtime stories—female forms; not history, the serious masculine form. The personal, both in Woolf and Hauser, gives the form of their historical essays what the seconds hand does to the face of a clock. Several other women have felt compelled to do the same, disrupting the essay: Jane Gallop with what she has called ‘Anecdotal Theory’ and Anne Carson, with her use of the word ‘essay’ in her poems, are easy examples. Carson’s ‘The Glass Essay’, for instance, is a long poem, not an ‘essay’ in the sense such nomenclature is usually used; it is also literary criticism in verse; it is—let’s acknowledge it—also a novella about living in reading; it is literary and cultural history—the construction of a genealogy of closed spaces and how they annotate the female consciousness. These disruptions can be irritating, like walking through a corridor with offices on either side, names and designations printed in Times New Roman, the surprise and slight annoyance at encountering a sign in someone’s handwriting, analogous to the lack of understanding of an unfamiliar form.
I cannot quite say why I think of hair when I think of form— the different cuts and styles created by women and the limited options used by men. The forms in which women have been composing are a bit like that— loose, free-flowing, changeable, transient, a style truly deriving from the situation instead of a one-fit-for-all or one-style-for-all-situation. The woman’s compulsion to fit into a male form can be illustrated in the politician Mayawati’s choice of hairstyle as soon as she won the elections, from hair that reached below her shoulders to what is called the ‘boy’s cut’; or the general unease with Mamata Banerjee’s domestic aunt-like rhetoric, such as in asking her supporters to go home, take a shower and eat a good lunch after her election victory. It is of this expectation that Woolf writes when she calls for more women to write novels, a genre that was still ‘novel’, new, that had not been inhabited by men for centuries, so that whoever followed them would be expected to conform to male forms and standards of art. It is not very different from our conditioning in form that makes us expect Europe to be at the centre of a printed world map—anything else would cause unease.
The forms in which women have been composing are a bit like hair—loose, free-flowing, changeable, transient, a style truly deriving from the situation instead of a one-fit-for-all or one-style-for-all-situation
WORKING ON A book on writers and artists I call ‘plant thinkers’ of twentieth century Bengal, I noticed—quite late, almost towards the end of the first draft—that the figures I was writing about were all men: Jagadish Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Jibanananda Das, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Satyajit Ray. It was a shock for me—was it possible, that there was a Judith Shakespeare even in the twentieth century, hidden from us by circumstances and my blind spots? I cannot remember when I started thinking of Maya mashi as part of this plant philosophy that had circulated in Bengal. Maya mashi was—it is still hard for me to write about her in the past tense—a refugee from Bangladesh who worked as our house help for many years, almost until her death. Illiterate, abandoned by an abusive husband, mother to a daughter and two sons, poor, very poor, angry with the world, of short height and dry skin, Maya mashi spoke in an unexpected language. I usually use a word like ‘unexpected’ as a characteristic of the poetic, of the language that gives poetry its against-the-grain fur. Maya mashi’s language wasn’t that kind of unexpected; it was unexpected in the way we call a voice ‘husky’, for instance, having been conditioned to the range and tone of a human voice. Her language was unexpected in the way walking on a wet floor is, in the way it requires us to improvise on our balance. Maya mashi’s language was what literary critics would call ‘found text’. But she was no Duchamp, and she was no Eliot—so no one bothered to acknowledge that her compulsive use of Bangla proverbs related to plant life in her conversation, particularly in moments of intense anger, were lubricating, extending, and subverting a kind of received literature that, had she been a poet, would have been called ‘intertextual’.
“For genius like Shakespeare’s is not born among labouring, uneducated, servile people,” writes Woolf. “Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes …. When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without singing them, was often a woman.” It was Anon I wanted to put in Plant Thinkers of Twentieth Century Bengal when I decided to write about Maya mashi’s ‘literature’ in my book.
Let me go and look for Anon in the Contents of The Book of Indian Essays.
Return to Greatness Zakia Soman
‘This Is Not Fusion’ Akhil Sood
Song That Lost at the Oscars Kaveree Bamzai