This long title, more suited to a scientific paper, is also, I realise, flawed, because I am using the very category (ie the writing of women), which I strongly dispute; but it is the only way I can encapsulate what I am trying to say. The basic problem is that a woman author’s text is still almost invariably read, not merely as a text, but as one written by a woman. Which means that many ideas about and stereotypes of women are inflicted on the writing, and, worse, the pejorative nuances which accompany the word “woman” are foisted upon the writing as well.
However, I will not get tangled in these issues which have been questioned and debated far too often. I would like to focus on one particular aspect of such a misreading of the text of a woman author, something I have become familiar with, because it continues to crop up in a very large number of academic responses to my work, and, I should imagine, to the responses to most women’s work.
This problem lies in subjecting women’s writing to a “tradition and modernity” test, so that the reading is one that perceives a conflict between tradition and modernity in the female protagonist. Subjecting every novel written by a woman to such a test is a vast oversimplification of both women’s lives and the very concepts of tradition and modernity. And there are so many assumptions made in the course of such a reading that it is impossible to speak of all of them. I will bring up only a few points.
The first question I would ask is: are modernity and tradition two polarities, two distinct positions, opposed to one another? If this is how we regard them, then certainly it would seem that they can never coexist, and that a very positive effort needs to be made to bring them together.
But this disregards the truth that these two are almost always operating simultaneously and continuously within all of us. We are inevitably caught up in both of these. Tradition, in the sense of a belief, a custom or a practice handed down to posterity (the dictionary meaning), is a natural and inevitable part of human life. Much of our lives – the way we live, the things we do, the ideas we believe in – comes to us from our immediate past, from our parents, and we in turn hand these down to our children.
None of us starts with a blank sheet of paper – no, not even a child without parents or family, because even that child would imbibe much from the place she/he is nurtured in. The way we live our individual and social lives, our religious practices and even our social and political institutions are to a large extent shaped by tradition.
Nevertheless, it is equally true of human life that nothing remains unchanged, that nothing is fixed forever – except perhaps human nature. Change is a part of life itself, movement and flux the concomitants of it. Yet, the human desire for the safety and security of the known makes us conjure up an illusion of an unchanging world.
Certain things, we like to think, never change. At the same time, it is also the nature of humans to be restless, to crave for movement, which is what propels humans into wanting change. Adventure and risks are a part of human history, as important as tradition, perhaps even more important, because the people we admire, the people we salute, are the innovators, those who brought about change.
We are constantly searching for new worlds, both outside and inside us. The discovery of fire, the invention of the wheel, the tilling of soil and growing of food, keeping cattle, taming horses – all these emerged from human restlessness and questing, from the need to push the frontiers of living.
Life, therefore, is a continuous play of a desire for change, as well as the need for the known and the familiar. These two do not war against each other, but work together, creating a seamless and meaningful pattern of human life.
Tradition is our link to the past. Yet, we don’t want to get bogged down in the past because practical living becomes impossible otherwise: this is a human concern and is not confined to one sex. When this is how it is, to say that women are different, that they are more faithful to tradition and averse to change, is to set them apart from these human traits, from the story of humanity itself, it is to deny them their humanness and emphasise their “femaleness”.
To say that women are more wary of change is a generalisation that refuses to take into account this factor of the humanness of women. Undoubtedly, women, as bearers of children and nurturers of the young, look for security and safety for their young. But this does not wholly obliterate the human need for change, or the restlessness that craves for something more than the known.
The human quest for knowledge, a very innate urge, has not bypassed women. Acquiring knowledge means questioning, thinking for yourself, it means turning your back on the unquestioning acceptance of any custom or practice that clashes with this knowledge, however hallowed the custom or practice is. It is possible that the status of women and their subordination to men has made it difficult, if not impossible for them to challenge any practice or custom openly. Which, however, does not mean that all traditions were wholeheartedly accepted and willingly practiced.
There’s this too: to look back at human history is to see a continuous process of change, sometimes a swift change, at other times a gradual transformation. The old is constantly being replaced by the new. Ways of living, dress, practices, institutions – all these have changed through the ages. So, what are these traditions which we regard as sacrosanct and which women are supposed to be so loyal to?
It is the family, the home consisting of parents, children, grandchildren, siblings, which we hold on to even today as the one safe unchanging place in a changing world. It is the tradition of the family itself, as well as the traditions within the family, that we cherish, it is these that women are supposed to uphold and be steadfast to – an important and a much-lauded role which has been given to them and which they, so we are told, are performing with great sincerity.
There is no doubt that the family is of enormous importance, perhaps more so today because it seems to be threatened; we are realising that it is not something we can take for granted. It is regarded, at least in theory, as a sacred place, something a man has to defend and a woman to nurture. At the same time, it is also the less important place; the outside world is where things happen, it is the place where important events take place.
This is like the idea of women itself, which swerves between an abstract ideal of their enormous importance and the actuality of their total insignificance. But the reality of the family was, I think, correctly spelt out in Engel’s statement that in a family the man is the bourgeois, the woman the proletariat. The fact is that the family, as it is, has been shaped by men for their purposes: to have children they can be sure are their own, to ensure that their property is passed on to their legitimate male heirs.
Ironically, or maybe cheekily, women were put in charge of ensuring that the family survived in this form, they were made the upholders of the tradition of the family itself, as well as of traditions within the family. To hear a person speak of the importance of an heir, of the fears of the family line being extinct, to listen to talk of family traditions and honour, is to understand how much we have made ourselves believe in these illusions about the family.
And most of these illusions are linked to women accepting their given roles. The family rests so strongly on this foundation that every small change in the status of women has seemed to threaten the existence of the family itself. It is the family which, more than any other institution, has perpetuated the subjection of women and fixed their roles and places in it so firmly and definitely that these have become almost sacred and untouchable. And, therefore, to challenge these traditional roles and duties required more courage than most ordinary women would have.
Yet, to say that women are willing upholders of tradition, that they wholeheartedly support existing traditions, is to close our eyes to some of these truths. It also means ignoring the dissenting minority, a silent minority, perhaps, but one that is part of all human groups. This minority is of great importance in human history, because it is with the dissenting, thinking minority that every change begins.
We also need to remember that silence does not always mean acquiescence; human beings are ingenious: they can always contrive to step beyond the permissible. Women, because of the restrictions they have always had to contend with, are even more clever in this. They have used the little space allowed to them, worked out strategies that subverted the rules and masked protest, as well as rebellion.
This apart, the family has changed over the centuries, as well. The concepts of democracy and individuality, urbanisation, greater possibilities of movement, easier communication, contraception, literacy, women going out to work, the increasing number of nuclear families – all these have changed the family structure greatly from what it was. Many of these factors have also weakened the power that the family wielded over its members.
Consequently, women’s lives have changed enormously. Most women have welcomed the change; they are receptive to the change partly because it has often meant an improvement in their lives, partly because of pragmatism. It is important, as I said earlier, to make life possible. To be part of the world, to play one’s role in the world as well as inside the home, not to have one’s entire life dictated by others – why would women not want these things?
To believe that they uphold traditions – which are almost always restrictive and confining of women – is to imply that they accept these restrictions that have been imposed upon them by males in their own interests.
Moving on from the reality in the world to writing, the next question that I need to ask is: What is meant by women writers synthesising tradition and modernity? Are women writers supposed to be following the same path in their writing as women are presumed to be treading in their lives? Are women writers specially desirous of and specially equipped to do this synthesising because of their gender? Do men have no desire to do this? Or are the men incapable of it because of their gender? And is this synthesising a virtue only in women, but not in men, like brashness, which is frowned upon in women, but not in men?
But, mainly, can we continue to regard women writers as a separate species? Yes, we do carry our gender differences into our writing, but so do we carry the other differences as well. Each of us is unique, with experiences and an imaginary world none else can have; in fact, we carry our baggage of differences with us whatever we do. Gender difference is but one of these.
And yet, the basic truth is that when a writer is writing, she is purely a writer, converting these experiences, ideas and all else into writing in almost exactly the same manner a man would. Just as important is the fact that writers write of individuals, not of a generic group. The singular, the particular, the one human – this is what the writer is concerned with.
So, when I am writing, I am not writing of a generic class called “women”; I am writing of one individual. It could be a woman called Jaya analysing herself, her life and her relationships at a critical moment in her life, looking at the man-woman relationship with special care because of her understanding that her gender has shaped her life and relationships to a great extent.
At the end of this frightfully honest self-analysis, Jaya has changed. The idea that after this she goes back to the point she started off from is laughable, because, what then does it make of this intelligent, thinking woman’s self-introspection? And her decision does not come, at least not wholly, out of her being a woman; it comes out of her human intelligence and human understanding. This decision is not imposed upon her by the writer, either.
To imagine that I as a writer, having certain thoughts about how women should live their lives, impose these ideas on the characters I create, is to deny the entire wonderful process of creativity and how it works. If Jaya decides to continue with her marriage, it is not because she is accepting the traditional role of a wife; on the contrary, she has rejected all the traditional ideas of roles in the course of her thinking. As she says, she has begun to see the world differently. And, therefore, she goes back into the marriage a changed person, knowing her life can never be the same again.
The problem of imagining that women writers lean towards the traditional comes from what I can only call the disease of reading a book as one written by a writer who is a woman and who is, therefore, presumed to have a certain mindset. Both the writer and her characters trapped, apparently, in the image of upholders of tradition.
Why is it, I was once asked by an academic, that your women who are troubled by patriarchy, who suffer under it, don’t rebel? I had to wonder what he meant by rebel. Loud gestures, apparently, angry sounds, perhaps, like the banging of a door. To expect this is to imagine that a writer sets out a situation with problems and issues and that these are finally resolved clearly and decisively.
To think that the characters in my novel should rebel against patriarchy also presumes that I have set out to give a clear and loud message against some social wrongs. That the novel is written to work out this manifesto.
To go on from this to thinking that, because there is no such loud and clear message in the novel, the writer is advocating a status quo, a return to the earlier position, with nothing changed, or, at the least, only a carefully and cautiously worked out compromise that allows for the injection of a little of the new, is to miss the point entirely.
I, as a person, would like women to be decisive and firm, to stand out against injustice. Like Aru in A Matter of Time, I am impatient with those who put up, or seem to put up with wrongs, who don’t fight it. But at the end of the novel Aru realises that her mother and grandmother, the two women who she felt were refusing to fight, were coping in their own ways. She understands that an active resistance is not the only way of warring. She herself will always be an active fighter, but she understands that there are other equally valid ways of fighting. So do I, as a writer, know that humans differ, that they will respond to situations in different ways.
The idea that a woman writer accepts the status quo also ignores a very important truth about writing: that writers write because they are troubled with the way things are in the world, they are angry about any form of injustice. It is this dissatisfaction, this anger, that is the driving force of all serious writing, whether by men or by women.
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is a classic example of a woman’s suppressed anger against the confines of her life. Jane’s restlessness, her agitation lead her to think: “...restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes.” Naturally, Charlotte Brontë was very critical of Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice, she said, is “a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden”. “The Passions are perfectly unknown to her”, she said about Jane Austen at another time. In other words, no restlessness, no agitation in Jane Austen’s novels.
Jane Austen has also been criticised for having ignored the world in her novels, unlike the writers who came after her. The novels of Charlotte herself, of George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell contended with unpleasant social realities.
It took a much later writer, Julia Kavanagh, to judge Jane Austen differently. “If we look under the shrewdness and quiet satire of her stories,” she said, “we shall find a much keener sense of disappointment than of joy fulfilled”. The subtext of her novels reveals her awareness of a woman’s sad lack of financial independence. Something which she and her sister Cassandra, spinsters both, had to cope with.
After their father’s death, they (and their mother) had to depend on their brothers’ generosity, specially Edward, who was better off than the others. And in return they had to be available to Edward’s family whenever needed. “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor,” Jane wrote to a niece. Obviously, when she began earning money from her novels, it meant much to her. The money “signified not only success, however modest, but freedom. She could give presents and plan travels” – Claire Tomalin’s words in her biography of Jane Austen.
Yes, Jane knew that money mattered. In a letter to Cassandra, she pleads with her to accept a gift. “Don’t deny me,” she writes, “I am very rich.” Jane’s novels tell us, if in a very nuanced way, that a woman’s financial dependence on a man was galling, that the lives of women without their own money meant humiliation and acceptance of servility.
No, Jane Austen was in no way upholding the status quo. Through her pictures of bad marriages, of Mr and Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, of the Palmers in Sense and Sensibility, she criticises marriages which resulted from a passing physical attraction and led to unmatched couples and unsuitable marriages. And behind the façade of Mrs Bennet’s foolish habit of chasing husbands for her daughters, there was the entail.
The lack of a son meant that the widow and her daughters would lose the estate, which would go instead to the nearest male heir. Mrs Bennet’s desperation to have Elizabeth marry Mr Collins has much to do with keeping the estate and family home within the family. And Charlotte Lucas accepting Collins was a practical decision, made purely to attain the status of a married woman; his foolishness meant nothing as against her freedom from dependence. In fact, Jane Austen’s novels are replete with her subtle criticism of the society of her times.
The problem of reading a woman writer through the narrow focus of her gender is compounded by the fact that the text is now also subjected to a feminist reading. This demands a conclusion in conformity with the generally accepted ideas of feminism.
The question asked of the text is: do you adhere to the feminist ideology? But the truth is that women, like all humans, have many forces working on them, often at the same time. There’s history, culture, religious and political faiths and beliefs, the class and family you are born in, family beliefs, the people with whom you live, relationships and mutual expectations. Feminism is but one of these forces working on women’s lives and feminism is something each woman will see differently. And therefore, decisions differ; all women cannot take the same path.
Nor are the alternatives confined to rebelling or conforming, walking out or remaining as a victim. There are many contradictions in the choices made, much confusion before a choice is made, if at all. Which, according to the critic looking for feminism in a woman’s writing, is not acceptable. But it is this rather complex situation that the writer portrays. It seems to me that women writers today are very honestly presenting the dilemmas and the ambiguities of women’s life, often with great subtlety, sometimes brilliantly.
For example, KR Usha’s English story “Sepia Tones”, which looks at the Annapurna image thrust on women with amazing clarity, Pratibha Ray’s Oriya story “The Curse” which deals with women’s hungers, including sexual hunger in an almost tongue-in-cheek way, CS Lakshmi’s Tamil story “A Kitchen in the Corner of the House”, which uses a small space in a kitchen to say many significant things about women’s lives, Maitreyi Pushpa’s Hindi story “Faisla”, which conveys with touching honesty a woman’s problem of choosing between being true to herself or to a relationship.
My own story “A Wall Is Safer” has as its protagonist a woman who has opted to give up her career in the interests of family life. She is not happy with the purely domestic life she is leading, but she does not regret the choice she has made; she knows she could have done nothing else. Nor does she look upon herself as the victim; it is her choice and she is willing to live with it, to live with the regrets as well.
Is this woman accepting traditions and rejecting modernity? I don’t think so. I see this as a pragmatic decision, which is as feminist as a decision to go on with her career at the cost of dividing a family. The point is that the greatest revolutions can take place in the mind; all revolutions begin there. How this thinking is translated into action is another thing; it is not necessary to walk out, to commit adultery, to divorce, to show defiance or a rejection of tradition.
None of these are modern, anyway. Adultery is as old as the hills and so is ending a marriage. But each person takes a decision depending on the circumstances of her/his life. The point is having knowledge, the point is being able to act on that knowledge, the point is taking responsibility for one’s decision.
Another way of misinterpreting is by putting what has been said in the text within the framework of women’s roles in society, of trying to fit the text within these confines. My novel, The Dark Holds No Terrors, has an open ending, yet it is most often read as ending in a way that is sympathetic to what society expects of a woman (that she goes back to her marriage); I find this very revealing and infuriating. There is this too, that the title of rebel often comes at the cost of fresh stereotypes, different from the old ones certainly, but doing nothing to set the picture right. But this is the only way it seems that the woman’s voice can be heard.
Truly, human lives are fascinating, the choices people make myriad, based on factors which perhaps they are unable to wholly grasp themselves. Most human lives are also incredibly confused, and it is exactly out of this confusion that a writer writes. To read a novel only as a novel written by a woman is to miss out much, indeed most of it. To read it as a feminist text, or see it through the lenses of feminism, is to dismiss everything in it that does not resonate with feminist tones.
In other words, it is a gross misreading, not a reading. Readers, specially academic readers, need to go into the text without the baggage of expectations that they carry with them, expectations that come from seeing the writer as a woman, a woman of these times who ought to write in a certain way about women.
To look for an infusion of feminism in the book and when it is not there, at least in the way it is expected to be, to conclude that the character – and the writer as well – is opting for tradition, is to presume that women are less writers and more social activists. We need to learn to read women’s text without these blinkers. To understand that when a woman writes, she is first a writer and then a woman. It is absolutely necessary to get out of the bog of seeing any writing shaped only by the gender of the writer.
Above all, we need to remember that in writing, in expressing themselves and in giving in to the urge for self-expression, women are doing what they were not supposed to be doing. When a woman writes, she is in fact flouting tradition; she is proclaiming herself and saying, “I will speak, I will say what I want to say”. The very process of writing is a loud declaration of the self – something that tradition barred her from.
Excerpted with permission from Subversions: Essays on Life and Literature, Shashi Deshpande, selected and compiled by Nancy E Batty and Dieter Riemenschneider, Context.