I’ve been reading this amazing anthology of Women Writers in India, from 600 B.C. to the present (1991 to be exact). Edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita, the anthology in two volumes, is very well-researched. Because most of the excerpts are from Indian language writing, and beautifully translated, they brought to me a literature that I had otherwise no real access to. Sometimes, more interesting than the actual excerpt itself, is the biographical essay accompanying each piece, a little bit about the author, her times, the context in which she wrote, how her work was recieved and who her contemporaries were. These short biographical sketches pieced together a social history. It made me realize how many freedom fights were fought over the years, how many were won, and how many still remain to be fought.
In a lot of communities, reading and writing for women were caste taboos. One of the most evocative pieces is an excerpt from the simply written autobiography, in Bengali “Amar Jiban” by Rassundara Devi. Written in 1876, it is the first autobiography written in Bengali. The author was an ordinary housewife, who taught herself to read and write in secret, and her account of how she learned to read is one of the most moving pieces of social statement. The anthology is replete with examples of women who broke social barriers again and again to reveal their extraordinary intelligence.
And the battles were not always against the obvious evils, those were relatively easy to fight – but the subtle, subconscious battle against gender discrimination existed even in the past. Women did not accept their subservient roles as silently and placidly as one believes. What amazes me not that women did write so extensively then but the fact that for ages, women have written about freedom, about their yearning for their individual beings, freedom from social fetters.
In fact, the first polemic against gender discrimination, a 40 page tirade “A Comparison of Men and Women ” was written and published in a Marathi newspaper, by Tarabai Shinde, in 1882, as a response against the death sentence passed on an unwed mother. This was almost a century before Simone de Beauvoir wrote her acclaimed “The Second Sex”.