Violence on the Page: Symposium: Does Indian literature reflect the everyday reality of violence against women?
December 1, 2012 Leave a comment
Violence against women has been – and continues to be – one of the biggest priorities of the women’s movement in India, for over half a century now. And in so many ways, it is such an everyday reality for so many of us. Do you think Indian literature reflects this reality? Or has violence remained relatively invisible? Please illustrate with an example or two if possible.
Violence against women has never remained invisible where Indian literature is concerned. Both mental and physical violence have been talked about in works of fiction. R K Narayanan’s The Dark Room and Shashi Deshpande’s the Dark Holds No Terror clearly dealt with brutalization of women as individuals. Talking of modern Tamil literature here which I am familar with Anuthama (Jayanthiburath Thiruvizha) , Rajam Krishnan (Veedu and many other novels), R Chudamani (Iravuch Chudar) deal with violence at home and violence against women in the society. Some of the novels of Thamizchelivi (Alam, Maanickam, Kiithaari) and those of Bama, Poomani, Imaiyam deal with violence. some of my own stories talk about violence as a continuing factor in the society and how they affect women (for example, Unpublished Manuscript, A Movement, A folder, Some tears).
I would rather keep the discussion within the purview of Tamil literature. Depiction of violence against women in Tamil literature has been quite an articulate aspect. Right from the turn of century most nationalistic texts dealt with the plight of women, especially child marriage and widowhood. In fact, Va. Ramasami’s Kothai Theevu constructs a feminist utopia. Most male writers of pre-independence era have evinced a sympathetic portrayal of women in society. The stronger women, of course, had to be in the disguise of men. After the fifties, we have writers focusing on diverse themes like indentured labour (Thunba Keni of Pudumai Pithan), domestic abuse (Rajam Krishnan’s Lamps in a Whirlpool), rape (Jayakanthan’s Sila Nerangalil…) and caste based violence (Poomani’s Piragu). Attempts at exploring woman as subject, with a sexuality that is forever contested have been the source of Thi. Janakiraman’s writings. Women writers too have co- existed with their understanding of the world. Krithika’s depiction of bureaucracy is one of its kind, in the way it weaves the personal and public spheres.
The eighties women’s movement did not really take the literary aspects seriously in Tamil. Rajam Krishnan’s works were the primary inspiration to address women’s issues. Ambai ushered in female subjectivity into the Tamil literary world. Quite a few male bastions were unnerved by her first collection of short stories. Her ‘thinking women’ did ‘sleep with monsters’. Chudamani was more subtle in her pen portraits. Jyothirlatha Girija faced strident criticism for her outspoken comments. The nineties saw the new language of women’s poetry in Tamil. Thus the visibility was not an issue but the rhetoric built around violence needed much more nuanced and complex understanding.
It seems to me that violence against women is an issue that has bothered only women writers, if at all. Writers such as Mrinal Pande, Ambai, Ismat Chughthai and others have written evocative stories about various forms that violence against women can take. But thanks to the way the literary canon works, thanks to the way the publishing industry and readership patterns work, the work of women writers often remains invisible. Which then means that the literature most of us end up reading is not really about women at all– certainly not about the violence inflicted on them.
Any comment on “Indian literature” on the whole must navigate the question of translation – which in fact is a kaleidoscope of questions, revolving around who gets translated and why, and who gets to translate. This is not in the least an uncomplicated matter, and I’ll cite as example the fact that one of the best-known translators of contemporary Tamil women’s poetry works based on commission and not on aesthetic or political allegiance. So to make this simpler, let me address only writing that is available in English, the language I work and read in. My sense is that violence against women in Indian literature is as commonplace as the details of a table setting, sometimes offered with an irony that indeed reflects the ironic and acquiescent way in which we as a society treat violence in real life. There is a line in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things that is very memorable because it is equally ironic and empathic – “The Kathakali Men took off their make-up and went home to beat their wives. Even Kunti, the soft one with breasts”.