A major development in the post modern Indian fiction has been the growth of a feminist or woman-centered approach, an approach which seeks to project and interpret experience from the viewpoint of a feminine consciousness and sensibility. Feminism assumes that women experience the world differently from men and write out of their different perspective. As Patricia Meyer Spacks remarks, “There seems to be something that we might call a woman’s point of view, an outlook sufficiently distinct to be recognizable through the centuries” (4-5).
It must not be imagined that feminism suddenly burst upon the Indian literary scene in recent years. Rather, it has grown slowly and steadily, some of its features having been anticipated by earlier writers such as Bankimchandra Chatterji and Rabindranath Tagore in Bengali and Jainendra Kumar in Hindi. Saratchandra Chatterji, who created perhaps the most memorable portraits of women in Indian literature, was something of a feminist by conviction, as were some of his heroines, such as Kamal and Kiranmoyee. In Urdu, Ismat Chugtai had scandalized many by her outspoken themes, while as early as the 1930s the now almost completely forgotten Rashid Jahan, in her stories in Angare (Embers) and Aurat (The Woman), had dealt with the problems of women, especially Muslim women, with daring unconventionality. In Marathi, Vasumati Dharker published a number of stories from the 1930s to the 1950s in which, says Rani Dharker, “the strong women characters she portrays and the ideas about women . . . are far ahead of her time” (79).
Thus what may be called the faint foreshadowing and premonitions of feminism become visible in Indian fiction as early as in the 1920s and 1930s. It is, however, only in the post- Independence period, and especially since the 1960s, that Indian novelists have begun to question seriously and systematically, and at times to reject outright, traditional interpretations of women’s role and status in society. Ideals of womanhood firmly entrenched – often imposed by men and unconsciously internalized by women are now losing their sanctity and are being critically assessed.
Oppression and exploitation of women in what is now often called a patriarchal society has been an ever-present theme in Indian fiction. The theme is a recurrent one in Premchand and Saratchandra Chatterji, although in Saratchandra it is often suffused in a romantic glow which blunts its sharp edge. Whereas earlier writers had often glorified women’s suffering, however, Indian novelists in the last two or three decades have on the whole presented it with much greater realism, and without minimizing its impact by giving it the halo of noble self-sacrifice. Recent Indian novelists tend to present oppression of women with greater self- consciousness, a deeper sense of involvement, and not infrequently a sense of outrage. The theme takes on sharpness and urgency, and is developed with great diversity of situations and characters, in Nayantara Sahgal’s novels The Day in Shadow and Rich Like Us. In the Dalit or “oppressed” writer Baburao Bagul’s nightmarish Marathi novel Sood (Revenge) Janaki, the daughter of a devadasi, finally seeks to destroy her femaleness as the only way to escape being degraded by men, by offering her female body to the River Ganga. Mrinal Pande’s story Girls (in Hindi) brings out the discrimination women themselves practice in the upbringing of girls and boys. The unnamed eight-year-old narrator is told by a female relative: “You are born a girl and you will have to bend for the rest of your life, so you might as well learn” (59). The narrator is finally driven to expostulate: “When you people don’t love girls, why do you pretend to worship them?” (63). In Shashi Deshpande’s justly celebrated English novel That Long Silence, the matric-failed Dilip is given a favored position over his much more talented sister Kusum. Manorama Mathai’s story The Marriage of Aley in her collection of short prose in English, Lilies That Fester, shows the unenviable fate of even well-educated Christian women of Kerala. The writer, Kamala Das also recalls how even in her matriarchal society a man could force his niece to divorce her husband, whom she loved, and marry another man (155).
The celebrated Oriya writer, Binapani Mohanty, whose avowed aim is to uphold “femininity” and “woman- consciousness” and who excels in presenting the plight of village women, and the leading Gujarati novelist Kundanika Kapadia, who has taken a sustained interest in the Women’s Liberation Movement, graphically and at times polemically depict the fate of women wronged by men. More restrained is the Assamese writer Sneha Devi, whose collection of stories Sneha Devir Ekunki Galpa is remarkable for its presentation of images of women’s life with insight and sensitivity. As Bhaben Barua remarks, at the heart of each of her stories “there is the voice of a woman. The significance of her contribution to Assamese fiction partly lies in the expression of this sensibility. . . . Various aspects of feminine sensibility have . .. been presented in her stories with remarkable authenticity” (15-16).
To be sure, portrayal of women’s suffering has been an eternal theme in Indian literature, going as far back as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. What is innovative and unprecedented is the perspective and point of view from which it is now presented. No longer extolled as noble sacrifice or enveloped in an aura of misty romanticism, women’s suffering is now portrayed, especially by women writers, with bleak realism for what it often is: an outcome of maleegotism, selfishness, and heartlessness.
Increasingly, in recent Indian fiction, women refuse to put up passively with oppression and injustice, choosing rather to resist them with courage and determination, often coming out victorious in the end. Although some writers may persist in showing women in traditional roles in society, many present women in active and assertive roles. Recent Tamil fiction, for example, deals pervasively with the theme of emancipation of women, the tone ranging all the way from muted to strident, from placid to doctrinaire. Jayanti Naik’s stories in Garjan (in Konkani) present village women fighting against male authoritarianism with firmness and success. In the title story of Gangadhar Gadgil’s collection The Woman and Other Stories the main character is a strong-willed woman committed to asserting and defending her integrity as an individual. In Sindhi, Soni Mulchandani portrays women who fight against injustice with persistent courage in her aptly titled collection Shakti (Strength). Rita Shahani’s novel Chanda Khan Sija Taeen (From the Moon to the Sun) shows the protagonist gradually shedding her dependence on external props and becoming self-reliant, thus ceasing to be the moon which reflects the light of the sun in order herself to become the sun. Qurratul-Ain Haider’s Urdu novel ChandniBegum presents a new and emerging face of the Muslim woman after long years of repression.
A major strength of Shashi Deshpande’s That Long Silence is its sensitive and realistic presentation of the married life of the narrator Jaya and her husband Mohan. The searching critical examination to which the institution of marriage has been subjected in recent Indian fiction may to some extent well be an offshoot of the growth of a feminist outlook. Marital relationships, and the oppression that often exists in them, have been a subject of great concern for recent Indian novelists, both men and women, although it is women writers who have felt most strongly and passionately about them, for understandable reasons. Writers such as Shivani, Amrita Pritam, Binapani Mohanty, and Sneha Devi effectively show the frequently oppressive nature from a woman’s point of view, of such relationships, and the legitimization of women’s exploitation which they too often involve. In a well-known poem, Pati (Husband), the Punjabi woman poet Manjit Tiwana wryly remarks: “The husband is a hungry wolf who saves you from other wolves, but devours you in the end. Dina Mehta’s finely chiseled stories of married life are peopled by women who boldly question male values and often totally reject male hegemony. In her delicately ironic story Absolution the narrator, a conventional middle-class housewife tellingly named Sita, responds to her husband Ram’s persistent infidelity by what may be called retaliatory infidelity. Her husband, who had flowers left for his wife in the lacquered bowl on the breakfast table after his acts of infidelity, is totally discomfited when he finds, in an ironic reversal of situation, a glorious bouquet of red carnations left for him by – who else but his wife!
Feminism as manifested in modern Indian fiction suffers from certain limitations. Too often it has led to the portrayal of passive, unrelieved suffering of women, their stark misery. Many women writers have been afflicted with excessive self-pity and have failed to extricate themselves from the vale of tears. For example, in Shashi Deshpande’s novel That Long Silence the spectacle of women suffering without resistance or struggle becomes unbearably oppressive. The fact is that passive suffering, no matter how true to life, does not go a very long way as a theme in narrative or dramatic literature.
Moreover, feminism in modern Indian fiction has often been too descriptive and not sufficiently critical. While it has effectively played with the surface, it has not sufficiently provided insight into the deep social and psychological factors which produce the environment in which exploitation of women becomes possible. Sometimes man is blamed too easily as the ubiquitous villain to whom can be traced back all the suffering and oppression of women, and women’s role in the oppression of women is not brought out, except through the cruel-mother-in-law syndrome. Arguably, in India at least, women themselves have been great oppressors of women. To attribute this entirely to the patriarchal system is, I think, overly deterministic and undercuts the individual’s autonomy and freedom of action.
Such lack of criticism can easily lead to exaggeration and sentimentality. But, as Krishna Kripalani remarks, “Wails of anguish or thunder of curses or growls of anger do not by themselves turn into great literature” (109). They can in fact lead to reductive, unidimensional approaches toward reality. In India, however, militant, programmatic feminism of the kind common in the West, when it has appeared at all, has tended to be confined to academics and socialites, its literary manifestations having been minimal. Not having achieved the occasional militancy of the West, literary feminism in India has also largely escaped the excesses of the Western model: a simplistic and doctrinaire view of reality and an aggressive and passionate conviction in the infallibility of one’s own point of view, as well as an outright rejection of all that militates against it.
For all its limitations, feminism remains one of the most significant developments in modern Indian fiction. It has brought about an insistent, searching revaluation of the role and status of women in society and thus may justly be considered an exciting and innovative approach which has vitalized and enriched Indian fiction of recent years in many, many ways.