Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not here waging a gender war, nor am I trying to gain a statistical upper hand as to how many women writers are being added to the publisher’s pile like colorful eggs to an Easter basket. I promise you that my concern is not a petty gripe that seeks to accuse readers, book prize judges and voters in most popular books contests of not reading enough women’s fiction. Nor do I want to live in the false belief that writing in our times will suffer in the absence of women writers.
Plenty of women writers out there
However, I believe there’s a huge number of women writers that publishers are churning out in every financial quarter. Also, it seems readers are reading a fair number of books by them. As a member of the Facebook community, I can swear my “friends” list is teeming with a majority of women writers, all of them engaging and accomplished in their own rights across genres. This notwithstanding the fact that one of the recent top fiction awards lists in India has no women writers in its roster.
I admit that my thoughts started flowing from that instance, but I’m not writing here on the brilliance or inadequacy of Indian English fiction awards when it comes to inclusion; on whether the selection committee members are under-read bigots; or on whether the readers are ineffective and muddled in their feedback when it comes to ladies wielding a pen, or on whether the prizes/awards themselves are meant to operate through just one kind of established socio-(en)gendered (if at all there’s such a term) lens.
So screw book prizes, which we already know to be capitalistic projects that are entrapments for even our favorite (male) writers. These awards are like anthologies one should be wary of. We know how the same names do the rounds and the same names are nominated for higher honours, right? We might even agree there should be a statutory warning on these prizes, anthologies and academic citing.
Otherwise, why wouldn’t everyone just ask – where are the women writers and what the hell are they writing, prize or no prize? Every time I’m on a sojourn to discover new landscapes on women’s writing via an article, an academic paper, or a long/short list of books, I see the same names, constant as Dhruva aka the Pole Star. The windmill doesn’t change direction while my horse kicks impatiently. Have to say I feel a little more intimidated than the indomitable Sancho Panza.
The same old names
The names I always encounter are Anita Desai (by default, Kiran Desai comes trailing), Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Bharati Mukherjee, Shashi Deshpande, Shobhaa De, Arundhati Roy, Gita Hariharan, Meena Alexander, Jhumpa Lahiri, and so on and so forth. Diaspora, native, mainland, po-co, off grid – wherever you tread, the beautiful greenery is all those names and a few more we get to read in English translation (a territory I’m not stepping in at the moment), such as Kamala Das, Ismat Chughtai, Mahasweta Devi, et al. what lies beyond this sylvan spread?
Don’t get me wrong. All of these are stellar Indian authors and have etched out a solid place for themselves in the stratosphere of Indian writing in English not just among women writers. Seen in the larger perspective, they have shaped Indian English fiction to incorporate a fine discourse of gender, feminism, Dalit and human rights, and other minority and mainstream issues. To read them is to see history and society in a vigorous way, one that can come sometime only from women who write while working against various socio-political odds in a country like India.
But of course, all this if we’re able to get past a Salman Rushdie. Or, currently, if we can cope with the clarion call of the Desi Angrezi Manifesto by Bhalchandra Nemade and Aatish Taseer.
Seeking a moveable feast
But is it too much to expect, as a writer myself – no complaints whatsoever to any fiction prize in the country – to want Mridula Koshy, Janice Pariat, Meena Kandasamy, Rupa Bajwa, Madhulika Liddle, Parvati Sharma, Manjul Bajaj, Andaleeb Wajid, Nandita Bose, and many more names to figure in discussions, nominations, and recommendations on English writing in India?
Yes, I want a moveable feast. Unless of course our women writers are completely off the mark and are not able to rise to the demands of the reading public. But are we really ready to declare a comatose condition for women’s writing in India, omnipresent on the social media and other eminent circuits, so much that no one really imagines ordering a coffin for it so early. Having vented myself thus far, I feel my first line could be vigorously challenged. So come on, prove me wrong.
While I was writing this, a well-wisher called up to tell me not to despair because women were doing well as children’s book writers. Much to rejoice there, I felt, till my peace of mind was shattered by another friend who snapped: “Only as children’s storytellers? We do more than kid stuff, ya know.” I was back on terra firma for a bit thereafter.
Now I have this uncomfortable feeling that truckloads of rejoinders are waiting for me. But guess what. I’ve had bad education. You tell me the right stuff. You, book lovers. At least start telling me the names of women writers you’ve been reading, and the titles that matter.
Nabina Das has published a novel, two volumes of poetry and most recently, a short fiction collection. She teaches creative writing and imagines herself to be a ginger root, spreading in all directions.