What you learn about Indian women from reading memoirs

Annie Zaidi
Annie ZaidiSep 12, 2015 | 15:18

What you learn about Indian women from reading memoirs

What does it mean to say that I am an Indian woman? I am a female citizen of a nation that came into being in the year 1947 AD and gave itself a Constitution in 1950 whereby I was granted the same rights as male citizens. Is that it?

For a long time, that was it. I had read in history textbooks of the struggles and sacrifices made by my countrymen, mainly between 1857 and 1947, and then India-the-colony became India, a modern nation. Later, through books and magazines, I learnt of struggles in independent India - the fight to achieve food sovereignty, various insurgencies, separatist movements and rebellions. Mainly, these battles featured our countrymen. Very few countrywomen.


Of course there was Sarojini Naidu and Rani Lakshmibai. There was Kasturba Gandhi. There were millions of mothers and sisters and wives who played supporting roles in every battle, violent or non-violent. Even so, when I thought of women, I thought of them as helpers of the cause rather than being their own cause. When I thought of them as being in conflict with the state, it was as victims of violence whose suffering instigated men to battle (or insurgency). I did not think of them as warriors.

All my reading - including poems and stories written by Indian women - did not prepare me for thinking of women as leaders both within the home and outside. I did not think of them as each others' comrades and saviours. I did not see that they wrought change, wrested change, laid down the path on which we walk now. Not until I began to read women's memoirs and historical novels that were thinly guised accounts of the lives of actual women.

While reading towards Unbound: 2,000 Years of Indian Women's Writing, I discovered books such as Rassundari Devi's Amar Jiban (published in Words to Win), Manikuntala Sen's In Search of Freedom: An Unfinished Journey, Joya Mitra's Killing Days, and Nirupama Borgohain's biographical novel, Abhijatri, about the Assamese activist-writer Chandraprabha Saikiani.


Rassundari Devi's struggle was an ordinary one on the face of it: learning to read and write. She had even been allowed a brief acquaintance with a schoolroom in early childhood. But she was married while she was still a child and then she became a mother. Although she was not married into a poor family, she still had to do much of the housework, then more and more children followed. Even if she managed to snatch a few minutes of time, she was frightened of being seen with a piece of paper. Women who showed any interest in literacy were frowned upon. As she put it: "One was entirely in bondage and my fears were great."

It was not as though Rassundari Devi wanted to do anything specific through literacy. She did not dream of finding a job outside the home. She did not want to shake off household responsibilities. She just wanted to know how to read, and the only thing she dared aspire to was something sacred - the Chaitanya Baghabat.

She finally managed to steal a single page from the book. Days passed. The stove had to be lit several times a day. Children had to be fed and bathed and soothed. Family members had to be served. But that ordinary desire remained urgent in her heart. She hid that one page under the hearth and stole glances at it while she cooked. She stared at the words, willing back a dim memory of the alphabet until she finally began to recognise words.


She didn't yet dare to dream of writing, but eventually she did write. And what she wrote about was her own life - what she lived, what she dreamt of, what she was up against, and how she finally managed to teach herself to read and write.

We are lucky to have Rassundari Devi's story; her children were supportive and got her work published. There must have been thousands of other Rassundaris in the 18th and 19th centuries. There must have been little girls who argued and kicked and screamed against an enforced illiteracy. We see glimpses of them through letters, verses, novels. But we rarely see such detailed personal accounts of a woman's circumstances and the heroism of one who sets out to defy dominant culture or religious mandate. Or breaks the law.

Joya Mitra's Killing Days is an account of the years she spent in jail for her involvement with the Naxalite movement in West Bengal. The book opens with a description of her lying in the back of a police vehicle, only dimly aware of where she is. She is not yet 20 and she may be killed any moment. But she doesn't die. Instead, she is taken to jail and through her eyes we see the lives of prisoners and the conditions in jails.

I had never seen a jail from inside, except in movies. In movies that did feature female protagonists in jail, they either silently submit to their incarceration or got tortured, often at the behest of men, or sexually exploited by men. If they were rescued or reformed, it was because some man came to their help.

Joya Mitra showed me a very different truth. She, along with a few other young women, saw themselves as political prisoners and they demanded that they be treated as such. They demanded better food. They clamoured for the right to read books. They were punished by other women who were in charge. They were placed in isolation from others, to prevent organised protests. They felt a degree of solidarity with male prisoners. They saw each other fall sick because of a lack of good food or medication. They nursed each other.

They were, in fact, fully functional human beings and full Indian citizens, and what happened to them was not the result of a sexual or emotional relationship with a man. If they suffered at the hands of men, they suffered at the hands of women too. They were subject to a brutal system (as were the men) and they lived to tell a tale that is not often told.

Cornelia Sorabji, India's first woman lawyer, has written on a range of subjects, including the women she met in the course of her work. Many of them were rich or royal ladies who observed purdah. It is interesting to see them through her eyes because, as a lawyer, she usually enters their lives at a difficult moment. It is often a question of property, succession, adoption and inheritance. She is able to show us both the vulnerability and the determination of these ladies to retain a measure of control over their destiny.

I was also very moved by Ajeet Cour's Pebbles in a Tin Drum and Prabha Khaitan's A Life Apart. They tell of sadnesses that are more familial and emotional. But they also tell us about independence and how hard-won it is. More than finding ways to make money, they describe the difficulties of being involved for years with men who would not properly acknowledge them, of the hypocrisy of people who did not mind benefitting from their generosity but would not accord them respect and loyalty. For all that, they survived and perhaps accomplished more than they would have if they had played by the rules.

Fiction has great power. It brings empathy and awareness; it opens up the floodgates of possibility. By placing strong and complex women protagonists at the centre of the narrative, novels and short stories allow us a fuller look at their humanity. They allow readers to make a leap of imagination and go where we may not have gone before. Non-fiction does something else. It gives to us the woman that we're not quite sure exists in the real world. It returns to us a feminine history and identity that is often denied. It is a non-Photoshopped image of what an Indian woman looks like and it leaves us free to decide what she will look like in the future.

Last updated: September 12, 2015 | 15:18
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