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Book Review: Annie Zaidi’s ‘Unbound – 2000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing’

By Nivedita N

Title: Unbound – 2000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing
Editor:  Annie Zaidi
Publisher: Aleph Book Company, 2016

When was the last time you walked into a bookstore and picked up a book of poems from our Bhakti poets or stories by Marathi scholars or a collection of plays by a woman playwright? It is difficult to access such books. While searching for books by Indian women writers, I flocked to Book Festivals and found piles of average books and dusty poetry anthologies. Additionally, these books are written, launched, and distributed without fanfare, thus preventing widespread dissemination. This anthology, Unbound, compiled by Annie Zaidi, is a critically important volume of Indian women’s writing.

Unbound: 2000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing showcases what women’s writing means: it is honest, gripping, laced with passion and at times, wry humour. This mammoth collection has eleven categories and includes writing by women (including male translators). The range of the writing involves plays, short stories, and excerpts of novels, nonfiction books, poetry, and essays. Although it is impossible to include all the pieces in the review, I have bookmarked a few from the eleven categories.

Spiritual Love

This section of the book is devoted to spiritual love and longing. The writers address God as a lover, speaking with Him through their verses, expressing their angst and anger, yearning to be cajoled. Since the poems have been written after being passed down through oral tradition, the reader notices idiosyncrasies of composition as in the one below:

“The Diwan of Zeb-un-nisa
O Prophet, o’er the world
Thy should-compelling banner is unfurled:
See how thy faith hath spread
Till Iran and Arabia are led.”

Also, one finds willfulness and strength in the poems of Akkamahadevi, the only female Alwar poet, who fought societal restrictions and married Lord Shiva’s deity; Mirabai, the saint-poet, who paid no heed to domestic restrictions and composed hymns to Lord Krishna; and Janabai, who wrote about the restrictions she faced as a low-caste woman.

Secular love

There is a hint of spiritual love in this section as well. With stalwarts like Molla from the Telugu writing Ramayana in perfect meter to tightly packing various themes in one story (The Death of a Tree) Alka Saraogi addresses environmental consciousness, philosophy, and love among other themes. This section sparkles. The poem, “Breasts”, by Kutti Revathi, which created a storm when it was first published, begins thus:

“Breasts are bubbles, rising in wet marshlands.”

My favourite piece in this section is “Kharemaster” by Vibhavari Shirukar, a compelling story of a Brahmin man, who comes to terms with the menstruation rules observed by his child wife. It was heartening to see so many poems from regional languages beautifully translated into English.

Marriage

Marriage has been less about love and more about law for centuries in India. This section focuses on arranged marriages and its perils, joys, and comforts, while challenging patriarchal constructs. Both men and women feel the bitter experiences of marriage keenly. Keeping this in mind, the editor has added that doyen of Telugu literature, Volga, whose story, “The Experiment”, is translated from Telugu by Alladi Uma and M. Sridhar.

Narendra is totally distraught. Sorrow engulfs him. Sandhya has an eye even on the money that she’ll get when he dies.”

The editor has juxtaposed this story with “The High Caste Hindu Women”, a popular piece by Marathi scholar, Pundita Ramabai Sarasvati.

“Marriage is the only ‘Sacrament’ administered to a high caste woman, accompanied with the utterance of Vedic Texts.”

Other renowned poets like Mamata Kalia feature here, whose poem, “After Eight Years of Marriage”, is suited for any era. Kamala Das’s My Story depicts how educated women still do not have control over their destinies and the horrific conditions of widows in Braj are narrated in “The Blue Necked God” by Indira Goswami.

Children 

There is a strange knot between the womb and the heart: a child. From the memoir of Ajeet Cour about the death of her child in a foreign country, to the short story, “Bunty”, by Mannu Bhandari – these are masterful works. There are poems about the dilemma of a child whose mother tries to find love after divorce and several poems by Nabaneeta Dev Sen that moved me deeply. In the memoir, The Prisons We Broke by Baby Kamble, the description of the painstaking process of giving birth in a rural area pulls at the heartstrings forcefully.

Food

Food and religion are intertwined in our country. The story of the widows’ denial of salt and other delicacies is a harsh ritual and “Mushroom Madness” by Bulbul Sharma touches upon this. Food is used cleverly as a metaphor in the poem, “Salvation” (translated from Kannada by the poet) by Prathibha Nandakumar:

“The Fasting Days
We were on diet and we meant to quiet
the heart, the intestine, lungs, legs and
the unmentionables in anticipation of
the next feast”

Centered around hunger, the politically charged excerpt from Nayantara Sahgal’s Mistaken Identity is invaluable to this section. Nilanjana Roy’s story, “In the Flesh”, laced with wry humour, is like a perfectly sized portion of a delicious curry that satiates the appetite.

Work 

This section advocates that any work done by a woman is no less than work done by a man. Lillibai’s acceptance of her new role as a ticket person in “Gulabi Talkies” by Vaidehi is humorous. Lillibai is a charismatic gossipmonger who increases the business of the Talkies. The details of labour on a farm in stories like “Chilli Power” by Bama, encompass humour, adventure and the landlessness of the rural landscape. The section fittingly attributes the work done by housewives as real work.

Identity 

One of the longest wars between genders has been about identity, especially in a country which has a layered texture in the form of gotra, skin colour, caste and tribe. Focusing on the dying Kabutra tribe is the compelling story called “Alma Kabutri” by Maitreyi Pushpa. The deep-seated and politically-inclined enmity between Muslims and Hindus is explored in “A Ladies Compartment” (translated from Urdu by Rakshanda Jalil) by Rashid Jahan. The tale of “Bibbo”, by Mrinal Pande, about a maid and the new job she takes up, causing discomfort in her owner’s household, is crafted well. Tara Lane, by Shama Futehally, is a beautiful story of young girl’s struggle with the awareness of class.

Battles

This is the longest section in the book. I wondered if it symbolizes women’s battles as long and hard won. The battles are personal, political, and socio-economic. The harshest story is the excerpt from Aruna’s Story by Pinki Virani, about the Euthanasia law. Then there is Rokheya Sakhawat Hossein’s humourous story of womanhood and the restrictions it places on her. A World Without Men is an innovative tale by Sarasvathi Amma. Easterine Kire’s Bitter Wormwood is the innocent tale of a boy called Mose, who listens to Gandhi’s assassination on the radio. Joya Mitra’s Killing Days is another brilliant read. Irawati Karwe’s Yuganta is a reminder that a woman’s battle is never ending. The Last Song by Temsula Ao is a nerve-chilling story of the armed forces deployed in the northeast. The excerpts from Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things and Urvashi Butalia’s Other Side of Silence enrich this section. But what makes it well rounded is the essay, “Indian Women and the Franchise”, by Sarojini Naidu.

Myth and Fable

In this section, women reclaim the fables and myth often associated with revealing men’s power. In Adhbuta Ramayana (translated from Bengali by Arjun Choudhari) by Saudamini Devi, Sita is an avatar of Kali. In While Teaching My Son History by Mallika Sengupta, the line “the historian was in fact a eunuch,lingers with you, and leaves you with questions. The play, Viswamitra, (translated from Tamil by Ahana Lakshmi) by Kumudini, is a retelling of the legend Raja Harischandra, in which the women do not follow blindly, but drive him from the throne.

Journeys

Arundhati Subramanian’s poem, “Where I Live”, dedicated to Mumbai, is a potpourri of the various hues of the city. The endearing story, “In The Name of Those Married Women”, by Ismat Chaughtai, is an account of her tryst with law and her travels to Karachi. One indeed travels with Eunice de Souza’s poem, “Travelling”.

The End

This section deals with the power of story as a woman enters the final stage of her life. Mahasweta Devi’s story, “The Breast Giver” (translated from Bengali by Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak), about a nurse who has breastfed several babies from the upper caste household is melancholic, while Yellow is the Colour of Longing is an odd tale of romance. Kisa-Gotami’s “Therigatha” (translated from Pali by Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids) describes the loss of beloveds.

The book also includes several plays and stories by famous people in Indian literature including Soyrabai, Amrita Pritam, Pratibha Ray, Kamala Markandaya, Lal Ded, Mahasweta Devi, Mamang Dai, Rukmini Bhaya Nair, Attia Hossein, Romila Thappar, Nivedita Menon, Khushwant Singh, Arunava Sinha. Picking perfectly fit pieces, editor Annie Zaidi ensures that each page shines with the hue of a different world. Stories range from the Bhakti period to the Mughals to the post-independence era and from Odiya to Maithili, from Pali to Sinhalese, the variety and the texture of the pieces is sewn with richness. As editor Annie Zaidi writes in the Introduction:

Finally, let me turn to a quote attributed to Hindi-Urdu writer Premchand. He said that a writer’s task is not to entertain or even to hold up mirror to society; a writer bears a torch that lights our way ahead.

Yes, this book certainly does that.

Unbound is available on Amazon India and Flipkart. 

Bio:
A Hyderabadi-at-large, Nivedita N lives in the Mid West of America. Her poems, stories and research papers have been anthologised and published in a few universities including University of Hyderabad. She blogs at: nnivedita.com.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘India’s Response to the Holocaust and its Perception of Hitler’, edited by Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi, Presidency University, Kolkata, India.

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