What Makes Some Of India’s Most Celebrated Women Writers Tell Their Stories

Personal experiences, caste, religious practices, relationships – there a lot of factors that make women writers different from others. This is especially true in a complex country like India where they are exposed to myriad facets. Here is why they tend to write on women’s issues and how their writing sets them apart from other writers.

There are several women writers in India today who feel strongly that their body of work should not be viewed only from a gender lens but be acknowledged as part of the larger world of literature. But this does not mean they are not proud of the singular perspective that women bring to the space of writing.

Celebrated Bangla writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen, who is also the president of Soi – Women Writers’ Association of Bengal, puts it this way, “Let’s just say that within the creative field of writing we women have special concerns and some special ways of telling our stories. I think that needs a dedicated forum, which is why in Bengal some like-minded women writers got together to set up Soi in 2000. Well known writers such as Suchitra Bhattacharya, Magsaysay winner Mahasweta Devi and legendary dancer Amala Shankar, among others, have been associated with the group right from the beginning.

The team of Soi – Women Writers’ Association of Bengal with celebrated Bangla writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen, who is the president the group. (Credit: Soi)

The team of Soi – Women Writers’ Association of Bengal with celebrated Bangla writer Nabaneeta Dev Sen, who is the president the group. (Credit: Soi)

Incidentally, Soi – which in Bangla has a three dimensional meaning – signature, ‘sakhi’ or female friend, and ‘I endure’ – completed 13 years of existence last year. The commemorative issue of their publication, ‘SOI Sabud’, also expressed the “deeply felt need” of creative women to find a “meeting point to vent our ideas, to test our creations, to gather strength from each other in moments of defeat, and to celebrate our victories”. That’s what Soi endeavours to be to its members: “a space where we open up ourselves to the rudest criticisms and still feel secure”.

Despite the fact that their works are ignored many a time, or do not get the spotlight they deserve, what is it that drives women to write? What are the thoughts and inspirations that move them to put pen to paper? Urmila Pawar, who writes in Marathi on her experiences as a dalit woman, says, “I came into this world with the painful baggage of my caste, class and gender. The difficulty of being a woman, particularly a dalit woman, with all the discriminations I observed made me want to write and express myself.

Her autobiography ‘Aaidan’ (‘The Weave of My Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs’) is a metaphor for Pawar’s writing technique that is all about weaving together the stories of people and life around her. “I am proud of the fact that I constantly strive to make women speak and write about their lives. My writing has given me this strength,” adds the woman who is one of the two writers to receive the first Soi Samman in 2013.

Padma Shri awardee Shashi Deshpande is proud of putting across a woman’s perspective in her writings.

Padma Shri awardee Shashi Deshpande is proud of putting across a woman’s perspective in her writings.

Ask Padma Shri awardee Shashi Deshpande, who “writes in English for Indians and not with an eye on the West”, why she articulates the woman’s perspective, and pat comes her reply, “But why shouldn’t I write about women? We’ve had enough of getting belittled and encountering a condescending attitude because we write from this point of view. We should stand for it no longer.”

Bharatiya Jnanpith award winning Oriya writer Pratibha Ray, who has been vociferous on issues of social injustice and corruption, shares an interesting perspective. Although she strongly feels that “there is no difference between the writings of men and women, writing is beyond gender”, she does admit that sometimes writing from a woman’s point of view comes naturally.

Ray’s repertoire reflects this. Although she was an established poet by the time she got married, she stopped writing when she became a mother. She decided that her energies were needed to bring up her three children. But when she took up the pen again, it was to portray female characters as advocates of peace.

“Feminist writing is a protest against the status quo allotted to women or the oppressed by society. My ‘Draupdi’ [Ray’s well-known work] is about a modern woman; she’s against war and is for peace,” says the writer.

In this context, it’s important to note that many writers and researchers have written that the war of Kurukshetra in the epic ‘Mahabharata’ was pre-ordained when Draupadi was disrobed publicly in the court by the Kurus and it was her prodding for revenge that set off the subsequent events.

Bharatiya Jnanpith award winning Oriya writer Pratibha Ray feels that writing from a woman’s point of view comes naturally although “there is no difference between the writings of men and women; writing is beyond gender”. (Credit: Kannan Shanmugam under Creative Commons 3.0)

Bharatiya Jnanpith award winning Oriya writer Pratibha Ray feels that writing from a woman’s point of view comes naturally although “there is no difference between the writings of men and women; writing is beyond gender”. (Credit: Kannan Shanmugam under Creative Commons 3.0)

The beauty of nature and the ugliness of the dogma-ridden society both instigate my creative sensitivity to say something,” Ray states. She attributes the “boldness and revolt” in her literature to her family’s religious practices – she follows Vaishnavism that preaches no caste, no class – and the teachings of her Gandhian father. Ray has, in fact, not been to the revered Puri temple in her home state for many years because she finds it appalling to see the priests milking visitors and discriminating against worshippers in the name of religious diktat. “It’s my protest against the corruption there,” she asserts.

Women, who have suffered many injustices through no fault of theirs but simply because they have been caught up in a social upheaval, are the protagonists of the works authored by Assamese writer Arupa Patangia Kalita. The agitations of the 1980s and 1990s in the Assam Valley, which saw widespread violence due to protests by factions demanding a separate state, threw thousands of families into disarray as they reeled under competitive killings by rival factions, forced migration, economic stress, and so on.

Her novels, like ‘Felani’, and short stories written against this backdrop, are searing and heart-rending. “I’ve observed suffering from close quarters and have myself been ostracised because I protested against the mindless violence – especially kidnappings and extortions in the name of patriotism. But I’ve not stopped writing about this injustice,” she says.

Urmila Pawar writes in Marathi on her experiences as a dalit woman.

Urmila Pawar writes in Marathi on her experiences as a dalit woman.

Kannada writer, who goes by the pen name of Vaidehi, also has a protesting pen although she maintains that “my protest is subtle”. Stresses Vaidehi, “I use the word ‘equality’ carefully. Organically we are not the same as men. Our sensibilities are also different in many ways.” Vaidehi uses a lot of folk tales and daily rituals that she observed during her childhood to tell her stories in a modern language.

Their ways of expression and their inspirations may be different but all these well-known female writers are in agreement on one thing. Reveals celebrated Hindi writer Mridula Garg, speaking for everybody, “I write because I can’t think of anything else to do. It’s like breathing.”

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Written by Ranjita Biswas for Women’s Feature Service (WFS) and republished here in arrangement with WFS.

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