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Shaping the World: Women Writers on Themselves

(Edited by) Manju Kapur

Hay House India

Pages: 272 Rs. 399

Money in your pockets and a room of your own

A new anthology of essays by women writers, edited by Manju Kapur, is an engrossing read that shows us why the “women’s writing” tag isn’t necessarily problematic, says Lora Tomas.

Lora Tomas  30th Aug 2014

Manju Kapur

n the early 20th century, just around the time when women in England were given the right to vote, a woman named Mary Beton, in a fictional rendering of facts, falls off a horse while in Bombay. She leaves 500 pounds a year (of colonial revenues?) to her niece Virginia Woolf back in England. This leaves Woolf settled for life, so she can finally quit all of the odd jobs she was doing (like reporting donkey shows and reading to old ladies) and simply write. Besides a fixed income, her own experience taught her, as a writer you also need "a room with a lock on the door". In her famous essay whose title implies the same idea, she pleads her case by presenting a life of a hypothetical sister of Shakespeare, with her brother's predilection and talent for arts (though, like Woolf, not officially schooled), fleeing an arranged marriage and ending up in London, unsuccessfully struggling to embark on a theatrical career against too many odds. Frustrated by the futility of her attempts, she kills herself "one winter's night and lies buried at some crossroads..."

Commissioned by Hay House to compile an anthology, the established novelist and longtime English Literature professor Manju Kapur came up with a collection of intimate essays by 23 distinguished women writers from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, living in their respective countries or diaspora, all using English as their medium. In Shaping the World: Women Writers on Themselves, the novelists discuss their work routines, muses, finding their authentic voices, publishers and audiences, challenges they had to overcome, the idiosyncratic blend of Western and Subcontinental influences, as well as their medium itself. The necessity of striking the balance between the home and the world features prominently in these texts, as do the quotes by Woolf.

The entire history (of this art) having been lopsided in favour of men, numerous cautionary tales of tragic women writers still continue to terrorise the imagination of ambitious girls everywhere. Barely 50 or so years ago, in the Indian South, the Malayalam author Lalithambika Antharjanam — married into the Nambudiri Brahmin community infamous for its treatment of women — managed to produce a substantial body of work in the wee hours of the night while painfully losing her eyesight to the flickering candlelight, and at times rocking a baby cradle or two with her pen-free hand.

Personal accounts comprising this anthology are somewhat lighter in nature, but still deeply related to their literary antecedents, and are essential reading for anyone interested in the creative process of writing per se — or women studies. For the women in this book, the triggers for writing were various: a crisis, calling, an exceptional mentor, a lot of time on their hands, sickness and so on. Writing in notebooks, sketchbooks, on sheets of paper, computers, Mackintoshes, Remingtons, Olivettis, or using only Mont Blanc fountain pens, they write because "when I do write, I find I can do anything, I can be anything or anyone" (Ameena Hussein); "For when I write I know who I am." (Anita Nair); "Because I refuse to shut up." (Tishani Doshi); for "that opening of memory's floodgates, the cathartic release ... refuses to be staunched when memoirs take shape" (Jaishree Misra); "I'd like my writing to be transgressive" (Janice Pariat); "to silence the dwarf," a creative daemon hissing into her ear (Mishi Saran); because "Writing = joy+gratitude" (Ru Freeman).

"Every morning, I dress up immaculately, earrings co-ordinated, every detail in place — even if I am to interact with all of zero human beings in the day," reveals painter and writer Amruta Patil about her work routine. Lavanya Sankaran discusses her writing process at length in a dynamic and vivid essay, asserting that having a writing routine is what differentiates a writer from a reader. She also emphasises the importance of "Stupid-time:" "I fantasise about out-gunning Sarah Connor in Terminator movies (...) I will abuse substances (...) dance (...) And I have absolutely no doubt that Valmiki, Homer, Vyasa and Murasaki Shikibu did likewise."

Though it might be stimulating for an aspiring woman writer to know how Vikram Seth or Salman Rushdie’s working day looks like, certain exclusively female variables will inevitably be dropped out of the equation: the experience of menstruation, childbirth, breastfeeding — or even their (im)possibility, as well as the constricting social parameters women have been facing.

anju Kapur presents several diary entries spanning six years, in which she records the development of an idea into a novel. Her essay could be read as a crash course in realist fiction writing. To some of them, as in the case of Sankaran, arriving at their own voice happened when least expected, in half-asleep daze, while Maniza Naqui's muse is a persistent, albeit elusive man she meets in various cities around the globe, in a time stolen from work, on white sheets drenched in sunlight, over candlelight dinners.

When it comes to English, the language they write in, they (want to) mould it and use it sovereignly, and some feel indebted to Arundhati Roy for a fresh, feminine take on this disputed colonial inheritance. With its stretched accommodating capacity for new words and plasticity that the forced historical expansion has earned it, English here is the target language into which the subcontinent's effervescent babel is constantly being translated. For Anita Nair, English is "an eccentric uncle". Moni Mohsin admits how Western storybook characters, places and food colonised her imagination, and how "Rushdie taught (her) to reclaim (her) language" which, in turn, proved itself to be "a delicious chutney of translated idiom, local phraseology and an Anglo-Indian vocabulary entirely peculiar to the subcontinent."

And what about the idea of women's writing itself? Shashi Deshpande feels the gender-based divide is artificial, and furthers the marginalisation. "If 'woman writer' why not 'man writer'?" she posits. Despite the fact that this question arises from impeccable logic and lucid analytical thinking, it often gets dismissed flat-out, even in feminist circles. If you, just theoretically, tried to propose an all-male anthology to a publisher, you would be met with a stark disbelief bordering on fury, though enough arguments, and some published research (e.g., Kathryn R. Blackstone's book on the differences between one of the oldest known women's anthologies, Therigatha, ascribed to the early bhikkunis, and the parallel monks' collection Theragatha) go to show how body and gender get inscribed into the text, and could therefore validate your brazen overture. I once discussed these issues with a formidable Indian poet and his comment concerning separate women's and men's anthologies was unequivocal: "Personally, I find the idea interesting, but literary critics would tear you apart."

So where does this book fit in, and why is it important? I believe its significance lies in introducing an array of role models for striving women writers, initiates into the craft. (Though it might be stimulating for an aspiring woman writer to know what Vikram Seth or Salman Rushdie's working day looks like, certain exclusively female variables will inevitably be dropped out of the equation: the experience of menstruation, childbirth, breastfeeding — or even their (im)possibility, as well as the constricting social parameters women have been facing.) This book thus helps create a sense of community for women who would have otherwise toiled in isolation. A page-turner as well, it delights and charms with the varied style of the essays, and could be gulped down over two afternoons. However, for anyone not entirely familiar with the history of women writing, on the subcontinent and in the world, and to outline the collection more clearly against wider literary and political contexts, a full-bodied editor's introduction would have been imperative. Since the writers presented here all belong to the (upper) middle class, this anthology does not reflect the overall situation on the subcontinent (at least when it comes to numbers), with its multitudes of lower-class women still being subject to double oppression: the one of caste and the other of patriarchy. We should also not omit the ghettoed transgender, while (of recently even officially in India) gender cannot be reduced to a binary opposition. The struggling sisters of Shakespeare are now to be found among them.

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