Virginia Woolf created the persona of Shakespeare's sister - an equally talented writer whose creativity was stifled under the rigid Elizabethan society. Her Indian counterpart could be called Tagore's sister. Actually, Rabindranath Tagore did have an older sister, Swarnakumari Devi, who became an accomplished writer and journalist in her lifetime. However, rather than being patronized so often, had she received the same encouragement and support as her younger brother, she may have reached an equivalent level of international acclaim today.
Editors Tharu and Lalita's anthology is an excellent collection of works by women who throughout Indian history have rarely been encouraged express themselves. Male critics have often ignored women's writing or have been condescending. Until the 20th century, female literacy in India has seldom been advocated. This book captures the development of women as writers in India, from early 6th century Buddhist nuns to the social reformers of the 20th century.
Devotional writing provided a safe outlet for the Indian woman, and the bhakti (devotion) movement began in south India in the 8th century, and moved north through Maharastra, Gujarat and Rajasthan by the 16th century. A bhakti poet could express her feelings under the guise of religion, surpassing caste and gender barriers. For example, romanticism and eroticism is acceptable through the lovers Lord Krishna and Radha. Another acceptable method was to invoke the inspiration of Krishna, as Tarigonda Venkamamba (19th century Telugu) did before she imagined Lord Vishnu as her husband. A woman of a low caste, normally forbidden to read the scriptures, could create her own religious songs by attributing it to divine inspiration. Atukuri Molla, from a Telugu artisan caste in the early 16th century, actually revised the Hindu epic, Ramayana. She produced 138 slokas (verses) in six sections within five days, and Molla Ramayanam depicts the story from Sita's point of view. Like most women writers, she was apologetic about herself, "I am no scholar . . . " and said divine powers had given her this voice.
A particular mark of the bhakti writer is the ankita - the author's name embedded in the text. An example is Mirabai, a 16th century Gujarati and Hindi writer, whose songs and poems are legendary today.
*"Mira is the servant of her beloved Giridhar (Krishna) And she cares nothing that people mock her." (p. 93)
Although there are no reliable manuscripts, Mirabai's songs have survived thanks to their lyrics and strong rhythm.
Tharu and Lalita have definitely broadened the scope of women's writing in India by embracing the folk song. India has a rich oral tradition of singing at weddings, lullabies, and during house and field work. There is also a stronger collection of songs about with intense statements about childbirth and mistreatment by in-laws and husbands.
In this collection, the readers can witness the centuries of oppression, as told by the women in their own words. Rassundari Devi (19th century Bengal) wrote of her own life -- weeping as child bride, bearing and raising eleven children, running a household on an empty stomach at times, and secretly learning to read behind her kitchen stove. She writes:
*"I kept the sheet in my left hand while I did the
cooking and glanced at it through the sari, which was drawn over my face . . . Wasn't it a matter to be regretted, that I had to go through all this humiliation just because I was a woman? Shut up like a thief, even trying to learn was considered an offense . . . the little that I have learned is only because God did me the favor" (p. 202)
These women struggled for a voice within their own households - confronting forced marriages, abuse and neglect by husbands and in laws, the denial of education and the ostracization of widows. There is an especially moving personal and anonymous account of the dehumanizing treatment of widows in the 19th century. If she only knew that a hundred years later, her words had survived.
One of the most insightful stories was written by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (19th/20th century Bengali) whose essays on the rights of women have been compared to English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. In "Sultana's Dream," she envisions a society in which men are restricted to the murdana (men's quarters), while women are free to rule the country, and excel in science and politics. She sharply and logically details the women's acquisition of power and how they utilized it to create a utopic society. This dialogue is indicative of Rokeya's wit:
*"[Men's] brains are bigger and heavier than women's.
Are they not?"
"Yes, but what of that? An elephant also has got a
bigger and heavier brain than a man has. Yet men can enchain elephants and employ them according their own wishes."(p. 347)
There are 140 women writers from 13 languages in this collection and every one has a singular story deserving to be told. Many pieces have been unearthed for the first time, while others are now translated into English. This collection is most likely available at university bookstores.