Inking revolution and battling sexism with the written word: here are India's much-loved female literary giants

24th Apr 2016
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“Women bring to their writing the truth of their bodies, and an enquiry into the different ways in which gender inequity shapes human experience (and destroys lives). Many women writers also place women protagonists at the centre of their work and many stories set within the household have the power to illuminate the ways in which women’s lives are shaped and controlled,” writes Annie Zaidi, in the introduction of the book she compiled – Unbound: 2,000 years of India Women’s Writing.

Most of the women writing in the late 19th and 20th century were child brides, and witnesses to a social structure that we can today only imagine. Some women who had formal education also wrote and through their writings addressed the issues of their peers. These women inspire us even today, for they not only stood up for themselves but were also harbingers of change. They used their pen as a sword to combat a society, its treatment of women and their own struggles as women of the world.

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(image credit –Shutterstock)

It is time to embrace these forgotten leaders, pioneers and role models and find their works in multiple languages relevant even in today’s feminist movement.

Ajeet Cour

Born in 1934 in Lahore, Ajeet did her early schooling there. Her family moved to India after partition and she did her MA in Economics from Delhi.

Awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1985 and the Padma Shri in 2006, she has written extensively in Punjabi. Her works include several short stories, novels and a travelogue – Gulbano, Mehak di maut, Dhup wala shahr.

Her writings show that she started as a romantic but she matured into a realist and her writings portray women in the society, their unenviable position in the society and the suffering they faced in their relations within the household. Ajeet’s memoir – Khanadadosh – was translated into English as Pebbles in a Tin Drum. She has also translated several significant works.

Joya Mitra

She is the author of several novels and collections of poems in Bengali. From 1970-74 she was imprisoned for her involvement with the Naxalite movement in West Bengal. In her book Killing Days: Prison Memoirs she recounts these experiences. Joya has shown keen interest in issues relating to women, peace and the environment.

She has translated the works of Amrita Pritam, Bhisham Sahni, Vaidehi and Ajeet Cour into Bengali. Her own works include a novel called Swarna Kamaler Cinha (The Sign of the Golden Lotus) and her poetry collections include Pratnoprastherer Gaan (Song of the Ancient Stones), and Deergha Ektara (The Long String Instrument).

Jyotimoyee Devi

Her personal experiences in life turned Jyotimoyee into a writer. Born in 1896 in Jaipur, which was then a Princely State, she received little formal education but was a keen observer of all things around her, especially of the decadence and splendour of the women’s quarters (zenana) in Jaipur.

However, married at the age of 10 to a lawyer and widowed at 25 with six children, Jyotimoyee returned to her parents’ house, where she had to live under rules of widowhood, stipulated by the orthodox Hindu household. Rules she soon started to question. It was at this time that she turned to literature for solace and began to reflect upon women and women issues.

She took to writing in Bengali. Her stories were set in Rajasthan, Delhi and Bengal. Her collection of short stories, Sona Rupa Noy (Not Gold and Silver) won Rabindra Puruskar in 1973. Her style was simple yet hard hitting.

She also wrote non-fiction and most of these writings focus on rights of women and Dalits. She died in 1988 in Kolkata.

Kamala Das

Born in 1934 in Kerala as Kamala, she was also known by her pen name Kamala Das and her one-time pen name, Madhavidas. She wrote both in English and Malyalam.

Her love for poetry and writing began early on as her mother was a poetess and so was her great uncle, Nalapat Narayanana Menon a prominent writer, a prominent writer. When she was married at 15 to a banker who encouraged her writing interests Kamala started writing in both Malayalam and English. She touched upon multiple subjects from female sexuality, to sexual disposition of women, women’s issues to childcare and even politics.

Her writings on women and sexuality were powerful, direct and uninhibited. Her first book of poetry was Summer in Calcutta and the second one The Descendants. Some of her popular stories include Pakshiyude ManamNeypayasamThanuppu, and Chandana Marangal and her novel Neermathalam Pootha Kalam.

At the age of 42 she penned her autobiography, My Story; it was originally written in Malayalam (titled Ente Katha) and later she translated it into English.

Her works have been translated into French, Russian, German, Japanese and Spanish. She also travelled abroad extensively to read poetry.

She died in May 2009 at the age of 75 in Pune and was buried in Kerala.

Kamala was nominated and shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984. The list of awards she has received for her literary contribution is long and includes Award of Asian PEN anthology (1964), Kerala Sahitya Academy Award (1969), Sahitya Academy Award (1985), Asian Poetry Prize (1998), Kent Award for English Writing from Asian Countries (1999) and the Vayalar Award (2001)

Pinki Virani

Bitter Chocolate: Child Sexual Abuse in India won Pinki the National Award. Born in 1959 in Mumbai to Gujarati Muslim parents, Pinki did her Masters in Journalism from Columbia University, on the Aga Khan Foundation scholarship. She has won critical accalaim for her books Once was Bombay, Aruna’s Story, and her fourth book and first work of fiction Deaf Heaven. She has also been instrumental in getting two major laws passed in India — the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012 and Passive Euthanasia.

Qurratulain Hyder

Regarded as the Grande Dame of Urdu Literature, this novelist, short story writer, journalist and academician was born in January of 1927 in Aligarh to parents who were Urdu writers and novelists themselves.

Qurattulain began writing at the age of 11 and her literary works include 12 novels and novellas and four collections of short stories. She has also translated a lot of classics. She is celebrated for bringing a new receptivity, thought and imagination to Urdu literature.

Her most popular work was a novel Aag Ka Darya (River of Fire) published in 1959 that pans the period from the 4th century BC till after the partition of India.

Her other published works include: Mere Bhi Sanam Khane (1949) which she wrote at the age of 19 and was her first novel; and the family chronicle Kar e Jahan Daraz Hai (The Work of the World Goes On). Her books have been translated into English and other languages.

She was Managing Editor of the magazine Imprint, Mumbai (1964–68), and taught abroad as well as in India.

She received the Jnanpith Award in 1989, the Sahitya Akademi Award, in 1967, Soviet Land Nehru Award, 1969, Ghalib Award, 1985. She also received the Bahadur Shah Zafar Award in 2000. She was also the conferred Padma Shri in 1984, and the Padma Bhushan in 2005 for her contribution to Urdu literature and education.

 Temsula Ao 

Hers has been one of the major literary voices to emerge out of the North East. Born in 1945 in Assam, Temsula is an ethnographer, a poet and a short story writer who has been awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2013 for her short story collection, Laburnum For My Head. She has retired as the Professor of English from North Eastern Hill University (NEHU).

Her works include Songs that Tell (1988), Songs that Try to Say (1992), Songs of Many Moods (1995), Songs from Here and There (2003), Songs From The Other Life (2007), These Hills Called Home: Stories from the War Zone and Zubaan. Her works have been translated into German, French, Assamese, Bengali and Hindi.

While in Minnesota in US as a Fullbright Scholar, she interacted with the Native Americans and learnt about their oral tradition. Inspired by this, she spent 12 years working with her own community, Ao Naga, and their oral tradition. Her ethnographic work based on this was published in 1999.

She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2007, Governor’s Gold Medal in 2009.

These are just a few stars in our literary galaxy from whom we can draw inspiration to use writing and storytelling as a medium of expression to overcome gender issues and challenges.

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