The Indian novel writing tradition is by and large a postcolonial phenomenon. Right from one of the first novels in English written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay to the deluge of novels written, published and consumed today, the Indian novel tradition has traversed a long distance in terms of scope and expanse.

While we have had novel writing in various languages and dialects of the country, we have also had a defined canon of “Indian Writing in English” taught at universities and colleges in India. Translation of novels from regional languages into English has been continuously shifting the boundaries of Indian writing and destabilising the appropriation of representative Indian novels within the elitist definition of a “canon”.

Traditionally, debates around canonisation and canon formation in India have been dominated by class, caste and gender concerns. Women Writing in India, published in two volumes edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, is a comprehensive collection of women writing in India from 600 BC to the present day. Tharu’s anthology and a survey of the contemporary literary oeuvre of our times reveal the intricate intimacy between literary production of women writers and the temporal contours of their respective histories.

Mythology, mythological characters and myths have informed women’s writings over centuries. Till the early twentieth century, the layers of engagement with history within women’s writings were more nuanced and under the sheets, as if cautious to not unruffle the “said” and the “done”, the “established” and the “systematised”.

Breaking the mould

From the second half of the twentieth century, one witnessed a registering of protests and contrary opinions almost unabashedly. Savitribai Phule’s published writings, or the works of Ambai and Ismat Chughtai were feminist writings that struggled hard to put women’s voices as a legitimate concern of history.

Contemporary writings by women have heralded a different wave of communication for and with women. They not only create strong characters, but also explore contours of literary definitions beyond the limits of the defined canon of feminist writing.  Especially while exploring mythology, they have been informed by this constant political struggle to appropriate their recreated, gendered version as the historical version of a feminine reality.

Sita and Draupadi

Kavita Kane’s Sita’s Sister and Karna’s Wife explore the epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharata – in a fashion which is almost a retelling of the two representative beej kavyas of India. The eyes of the two women relegated and tucked away rather dismissively as the wives of two characters, Laxman and Karna respectively, struggling below the massive weights of the epic heroes, refashion the entire narrative in a way which is more real, more fleshed out and more relatable.

The world of Urmi, Sita’s sister – not Laxman’s wife or Ram’s sister-in-law – is one that in its very introduction, the cover of the book itself, discards the male heroic grandeur of the quasi-historical narrative. The book presents a layered representation of Urmi’s identity as an intelligent, ambitious, uncomplicated and matter-of-fact woman who is capable not just of loving madly but also of defining her love with new meanings of intellectual achievements in the absence of her beloved.

She is not the complaining, crying, pining, vulnerable woman who writes love poems while Laxman is away in exile. Urmi utilises the redundancy of a marital life by informing herself of various academic disciplines and earns the position of a sage invited for an annual conference – almost entirely a male bastion.

In Karna’s Wife, the author tries to meticulously lend a voice to the doubly marginalised Uruvi, the second wife of an unsung hero Karna. Uruvi is a fiercely independent woman who makes choices according to what she wants, rather than “what should have been”. And she does so in a logical fashion and not as a statement of protest.

Her alacrity in responding to situations and her deftness in political matters etches out a character which is strong and free – a character which would never ever have been a part of the popular narrative across history.

In the same book, the writer also lends space to the other two marginalised women in the epic – Draupadi and Vrushali, Karna’s lover and Karna’s first wife, respectively. This authorial space to Draupadi’s articulation of her desires for Karna and insights into Vrushali’s thinking after Uruvi shares Karna’s love, make for a far more nuanced, layered and humane narrative than the grandeur of an epic literary style can achieve.

Rati, wife of Kama

Anuja Chandramouli’s Kamadeva recreates the story of Kamdeva and his wife Rati. For the first time in contemporary literary discourse, Kamadeva enters the imagination of the authorial voice. Recreating the lives of the eponymous hero and his wife through a revisiting of his representation in the Puranas and the Upanishads, the is to most diligently expropriate a voice almost lost in epic canonisation. The translation and transcription of characters from mythological narratives into the popular and contemporary idioms of our times make the story more relatable and believable.

These contemporary women authors have not crafted their women characters to challenge the status quo. These characters register their strong presence without jostling for space. It is as if they already belong there. It is natural cohabitation with whatever exists without destabilizing the social order.

The women – Uruvi, Urmila, Rati, Draupadi, Sita – register an acknowledgement of their roles and identities within the larger patriarchal and male-dominated order of the day. They ask relevant questions, demand pointed answers, and ensure their voices are listened to and not just heard. These contemporary characters from mythology are not like Jane Eyre or Bertha Mason or Maggi or Tess or Lolitha who struggle and sometimes lose their sanity or even their lives in the process of seeking their space.

Contemporary writings by women recreating the mythical and mythological characters of the Indian literary tradition seem co-terminus with the rise of a new middle-class woman. The search for an identity and exploration of the self in a postmodern world of shifting definitions around feminism and patriarchy have reincarnated the mythological characters as real women walking around in the contriving corridors of literary history with the liberating ease and comfort that seems almost a utopia.

In the event that a khap orders the murder of a woman over asserting her choice who to live with, Draupadi narrating how she always felt desirous for Karna despite being identified as panchali is a fate almost enviable and ideal.