Concern for the Destiny of the Country

I’ve just had my article “Concern for the Destiny of the Country: Indian Feminist Novels” published in the online, non-academic literary journal, The Critical Flame. It focuses on three novels: Qurratulain Hyder’s My Temples, Too (translated from Urdu), Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Vaasanthi’s Birthright (translated from Tamil, and also reviewed by me here.)

TCF came to my attention a few months ago when they announced that for a whole year, they would only publish reviews and criticism of literature written by women and minorities, to help rectify a general imbalance in reviewing practices. I’d been looking for serious, intellectual open-access journals and magazines with which to publish, and TCF seemed to fit the bill.

Update: 3 Quarks Daily reposted my article last week, a lovely and unexpected stamp of approval 🙂

The first paragraph is extracted below, and you can read the whole article here.

“Indian literary critic Meenakshi Mukherjee has said that the essential concern of the twentieth-century Indian novelist was the changing national scene and the destiny of the country. She was referring to novels of the first half of the twentieth century, but these same concerns continue to operate today. It is only the definition of what the “destiny of the country” means that has changed over the decades. The concerns to which she refers are not confined to the Independence struggle, but increasingly turn toward problems of class and gender. Three novels—Urdu author Qurratulain Hyder’s classic My Temples, Too, English-language author Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Tamil author Vaasanthi’s Birthright; all published by India’s two leading feminist presses, Zubaan and Women Unlimited—highlight the changing nature of national destiny. Though these novels differ in both style and content, their central characters face renegotiations of youth, class, and gender, in the shadow of post-Independence national identity. These works not only reveal the shifting ground of Mukherjee’s concern, but also demonstrate that there is no such thing as a representative Indian feminist novel. In these titles, diversity is privileged above adherence to ideology. Each one expresses a different India—newly independent, ruling class, revolutionary, Muslim; urban, globalising, corporate; rural, educated, tradition-bound—all with women’s experiences at their center.”


My new article in Intersections


I’ve just had an article published in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific, an open-access academic journal. It’s called ‘Reconciling Feminist and Anti-Caste Analyses in Studies of Indian Dalit-Bahujan Women’, and looks at the work of three publications by Indian feminist presses. It’s a modified and shortened version of one of the chapters of my PhD thesis.

This article is a good example of why I chose to leave academia (nothing to do with the article itself! But the publication process.) I first submitted this two years ago. I had to have my final changes made at the end of 2012. My final proofs were done in mid-2013. Yet it is only now being published. I’m not blaming anyone involved, but the whole academic publishing process means that studies are not reaching their target audience in a timely manner, even when there aren’t the physical logistics of printing and distribution involved–Intersections is an online journal. The system really needs an overhaul, but is unlikely to get it anytime soon. For example, I wrote this long before the author of one of the books discussed, Sharmila Rege, died last year. I wouldn’t necessarily have changed what the article contains after the news of her death reached me, but I may have wanted to add some kind of footnote in recognition of it.

But, all is well that ends well. Here is an extract from the article, and the rest of the article can be read by everyone (I love open-access academic journals, especially now that I’m no longer based at a university!) here.

“In the west the catchphrase ‘all the women are white, all the blacks are men’ came to capture black women’s feelings that they were alienated from both the feminist movement and the black civil rights movement. In India, there has been a ‘masculinization of dalithood and a savarnisation [upper-casteing] of womanhood. This paper examines three book-length studies of women’s involvement in anti-caste struggles that go some way in reconciling feminist and anti-caste positions concerning dalit-bahujan women: We Also Made History: Women in the Ambedkarite Movement, by Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon (Zubaan, 2008), Writing Caste/Writing Gender: Reading Dalit Women’s Testimonios by Sharmila Rege (Zubaan, 2006), and The Other Half of the Coconut: Women Write Self-Respect History, edited by K. Srilata (Kali for Women, 2003). All three books were published by leading Indian feminist presses. This paratextual fact is central to a key argument of mine—that recent, feminist-inspired histories of dalit-bahujan women are trying to reconcile the fissures between feminist and anti-caste analyses, but are not always entirely successful because one of the two modes of analysis remains dominant over the other. Feminist and anti-caste modes of analysis have not always complemented each other in activism or scholarly discourse, with ‘mainstream’ feminists often believing that their movement is caste-neutral, and lower-caste women believing that the feminist movement does not provide a space for their particular grievances, heavily marked by caste. I argue that these feminist studies attempt to reconcile a feminist analysis with an anti-caste one—that is, the authors and views expounded in the texts are informed by feminist and anti-caste positions. But, it is still evident that the two modes of analysis have an ambivalent relationship with each other. ‘Feminist’ often remains synonymous with ‘upper-caste.'”

Birthright, Vaasanthi (2004)

(Translated from Tamil by Vasantha Surya)

It was refreshing to read an overtly, unashamedly, unapologetically feminist novel by Indian feminist publisher Zubaan. Though Shashi Deshpande has a point when she says that she would prefer her novels be read as novels and not as feminist tracts (“why must I, each time I write a novel, present pictures of rebellion? Because I am a feminist? For God’s sake, I’m a novelist, I write novels, not feminist tracts” [Writing from the Margin and Other Essays, p. 159]), and though I see the value of feminist publishers like Zubaan trying to reach out to readers ambivalent about feminism by publishing a broad range of women’s writing, I still applaud this overtly feminist novel. The issues it raises are urgent, and if the only writers prepared to tackle them are feminist writers, publishers and readers should look beyond 2012 squeamishness about aligning with such a political stance and focus on what’s really important.

Birthright is ostensibly about sex-selective abortion in India, and of course, “sex-selective abortion” is itself a necessarily euphemistic term meaning the abortion of female foetuses (“female foeticide” is too problematic a term, though commonly used, as the implications of “foeticide” ally it with various religious right-wing groups, whether Indian, American, or whomever). The narrator of Birthright is Mano, a twenty-something year old doctor living in a small town in Tamil Nadu. A large part of her job involves scanning pregnant women, and aborting female foetuses, after the women don’t like what they discover. Mano is not ashamed of this fact, seeing it as an essential social service that will save the women from abuse from their husbands and in-laws, and save unborn females the pain of being a girl, and a woman, in a family and society that despises them. Whatever distaste Mano feels at this part of her job is translated into contempt for her patients:

“The delivery case was quite simple, no complications. No need to howl like that just for labour pains. Something else was making her howl. This was the second–the first was a girl. What was this one going to be? That was what the screaming was about. Meenatchi said the husband and the mother-in-law were waiting outside. When she screamed Ayyo! Amma! what she was really doing was trying to see if the wellsprings of compassion would open up for her. […]
‘A boy!’ announced Meenatchi.
The woman who’d just given birth to it stared in disbelief, then clutched at my hand and kissed it as though she’d gone crazy. ‘Thayee! You’re a goddess, Thayee!’ she gasped and began to sob.
Wearily I detached myself from the rejoicing taking place around me and went to wash my hands. The very sight of that frenzy and those happy tears was humiliating. The husband and mother-in-law were passing around lumps of sugar. I wanted to tear them to pieces that very instant.” (p. 7)

The same rejoicing husband had threatened to throw the wife out if she gave birth to another girl.

The other major theme of Birthright is female property inheritance in India. Mano is an only daughter, something that puts her in a precarious position within her family. Before the death of her mother, her father had threatened to remarry in the hopes of bearing a son. After her mother’s death, rumours circulate that her father will adopt a son and heir. Mano sees remaining unmarried as her only hope of inheriting her father’s house and business–if she were to marry, tradition would dictate that she go and live in her husband’s home, relinquishing any small right she had to her inheritance.

Neither of these issues is resolved satisfactorily in Birthright. This would not be a problem if they were deliberately left unresolved–how can a novelist hope to resolve them!? But the ending is rather bizarre and too-tidy. Nevertheless, this is an absorbing and memorable book, and one that gives feminist novels a good name.