The twentieth century saw Indian English writing taking off in a big way. The triumvirates Mulkraj Anand, Raja Rao and R.K.Narayan gave the genre a big boost. Laxmi Holmstrom traces some of the dominant themes in the writings of Indian women since Independence, which hint at the social context of “colonialism and its aftermath, partition and exile and changing social conditions” (Holmstrom, 2002: Pxi). She analyses that “Many of the stories are, feminist in the sense that they present a woman’s perspective and point of view in a particular way.” One of the writers Lalitambika Antarjanam (1938) in Revenge Herself narrates a late nineteenth century event that shook the foundation of the orthodox Nambudiri Brahman caste in Kerala. The writer uses the literary device of the ghost in order to bring out the pathos of the female victim in a first person narrative.
The novels of early 1950s and 1960s dealt with the binaries: tradition-modernity and rural-urban. The period witnessed writers like Nayantara Sahgal, Manohar Malgonkar, Anita Desai, Bhabani Bhattacharya, Kamala Markandaya, who took up new subjects and new themes dealing with women’s self-awareness. For many Indian woman novelists the quest for identity as impacted by the patriarchal system has been the favorite theme. Manjul Bajaj notes,
Women writers such as Ismat Chughtai, Krishna Sobti,
Qurratulain Hyder, Shivani, Mahashweta Devi and Kamala Das
gave to us women on the frontlines of conflict-emotional,
sexual, social and political. Ismat Chughtai’s story, Lihaf
(quilt), written in 1941…pre-dates Simone De Beauvoir’s
seminal …The Second Sex by five years and matches it in its
exploration of early childhood experiences and
conditioning on the feminine psyche and in a woman’s
relationship to her body. In Krishna Sobti’s 1966 novel, Mitro
Marjani… explores her sexuality within the confines of a
traditional joint family…raised the bar on how far a woman
writer could go to explore her truth...Kamala Das’s…My Story
(1973) was the story of one woman’s candid quest for love,
inside and outside marriage, written …to shock society out of its
stock understanding of man-woman relationships in general,
and marriage in particular. (Bajaj, 2011)
As far back as in 1955, Kamala Markandaya depicted Rukmini in The Nectar in a Sieve, as the picture of suffering and sacrifice, steeped in love and faith in the background of rural India. Even if it is a quest for nectar in a sieve, one must endure and hope. The novel affirms a faith for a better to-morrow. Attia Hussain’s Sunlight on a broken column (1961) is in the form of an autobiography, covering a period of about 20 years in the life of its narrator Laila, a novel about the growing up of a young girl against the background of disintegrating family, of political upheaval of pre-partition days. Nayanatara Sahagal explores the traditional narrow-minded Indian society which imposes arranged marriages in This time of morning (1965) while her book Storm in Chandigarh (1969) deals with the hypocritical Indian society which has different yard sticks of fidelity for man and woman. Witnessing the enormous spurt in the volume of women’s writing, it is impossible for this research to place on record every writer.
The novels of 1970s are woman-centered and increasingly become vox- populi for the new dynamic Indian woman. A radical thought for those times was Telugu writer Snehalatha Reddy’s drama Sita (1974), which critiques Ramayana, and upholds the rights of Sita as a wife, as an individual and as a woman. Reddy depicts Sita as being a rebel against Rama and his pompous masculinity. Ruth Prawar Jhabvala’s Heat and Dust (1975) which was awarded The Booker Prize and Kamala Markandaya’s Two Virgins (1973) are good examples of female protagonists’ struggle for control over their lives. Rama Mehta’s Inside the Haveli (1977), and Githa Hariharan’s The Thousand Faces of Night (1992), which won The Common Wealth Writer’s prize for Best First novel in the Eurasian region, are other novels which highlight an educated woman’s quest for her roots. The Thousand Faces of Night portrays the mother-daughter bond as well as depicts the life of three different women, of different generations, trying to cope with their directionless lives. It deals with the ordeal of woman caught in the institution of arranged marriage, and her walking out of it in order to keep her dignity as a woman and human intact. Many novels are woman-centered, and deal with domesticity, such as Anjana Appachana’s Listening now, which depicts the 16 years of the life of Padma, a lecturer in a university. It has six different female narrative voices.
The 1980s saw a maturity in the use of language, style and technique. The self-effacing tone of the earlier writers is replaced by the self-asserting tone of the latest ones. The likes of Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Tharoor, Arundathi Roy, Vikram Seth, Kavery Nambisan, Shashi Deshpande, Anita Nair, Rama Mehta, Gita Mehta, Bharati Mukherjee, Jhumpa Lahiri, and others brought international recognition and ushered in western liberal morality. Rajeshwari Sunder Rajan, Leela Kasturi, Sharmila Rege, and Vidyut Bhagat are some essayists and critics who write in favor of feminism in English. Jumpha Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies and Anita Nair’s Satyr of the subway similarly deal with human relationships. Shashi Deshpande and Anita Desai both write on middle class family. They project the alienation and identity crisis of their male dominated female characters. Their quest is for an identity different from role playing as a daughter, a wife or a mother. Shashi Deshpande’s novel The Dark Holds No Terror and Anita Desai’s Where shall we go this summer plumb the depths of female psyche in the characters of Sarita and Sita. They depict the reality of incompleteness, and palpably describe the inner turmoil and the evolving self-knowledge as they break away from their narrow communities. They have to find within themselves the strength to be emancipated while living within traditional roles of the society. Sudha Murthy’s Dollar Bahu moves out of the traditional boundary of India into the land of dreams and succor, America, exposing the other side of materialism and loneliness. She sees women in various stages of suffering within the folds of a cruel society, subjugated by husband, by children, by mother-in-law, by daughter-in-law, and coping with it.
The 1990s produced novels which focused on today’s women of Modern India and leaves it to us to gauge whether the status of women has undergone a change for the better or for the worse. These writers do not carry with them the colonial baggage but show a refreshing and different face of contemporary India. Their creations revolve around the general theme of middle class, in rural as well as urban set up and also the clash of values and systems, when the twain meet. Namita Gokhales’ Gods, Graves and Grandmothers (1994), is about social realism in a tongue-in-cheek satire of the religious side of India and the duplicity of religious leaders, who are abundant in India. Namita Gokhale’s Paro: Dreams of Passion (1984) is satirically comical where Paro is married several times and has an adulterous relationship with a younger man in contrast to a model Indian woman, who is subjugated and chaste. The title seems to mock the tension between the traditional image and contemporary image of modern woman with the changing expectation and modernity. The 1990s novels are centered on female protagonists and their awareness of what it entails to be woman in a male-centered, tradition bound society, as in the works of Anita Desai and Shashi Deshpande. Another theme to emerge is that of the lives of women during India’s struggle for independence. Manju Kapur’s Difficult Daughters (1998) follows the journey of Ida, who traces the life of her mother Virmati and her grandmother, in a quest to understand them. It portrays the difficulty of trying to become a distinctive individual in the caste-ridden society, and the obstacles and humiliations that she has to face, when she breaks traditional boundaries. Singh gives credence to the fact posited by Santhosh Gupta that, “women novelists of the 80s and 90s portray women characters in search of self-fulfillment” (Singh, 1998:44).
Many women writers have written novels of magic realism, social realism and regional fiction. Suniti Namjoshi (1941) and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (1956) employ magic realism in Mistress of Spices (1997), and The Mother’s of Maya Diip (1989). Suniti Namjoshi stands out for her use of fantasy. Here magic and reality beautifully blend together to create credible novels. The discursive mode of narration makes the novel realistic. Provincial writers such as Arundhati Roy (1961), Anita Nair (1966), and Susan Viswanathan have put Kerala on the fictional map of India. The God of Small Things (1977) went on to win The Booker Prize. Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine (1989) and Kavery Nambisan’s The Hills of Angheri are Bildungsroman novels of growing up. The young Indian girl Jyothi becomes Jasmine and then Jane in U.S. Nalinakshi born in a small village nurtures a dream of becoming a doctor and fulfills it, going on to study and practice in India and abroad. Sunetra Gupta’s A sin of colour has the hero disappearing from the novel, while his English wife Jennifer, modeled on the patient Hindu wives, waits for his return for years and years.
The 2000s and recent novels are about representation of middle class women who have a career, and a development of a feminine sensibility beyond being a feminist. They might resist marriage as they might be happy and contented in their life. Here men in their lives, become peripheral. These novels of 2000s show a lot of variety in genre and themes. Meera Syal’s Life isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee (2000), depicts the dilemma of British- Asian men and women caught between the crossfire of traditions and customs of birth and adopted countries. It narrates the tales of Indian women from 1919 to present day, from youth to grandmothers. The common thread is one of attempted reconciliation between East and West within the context of women’s roles. In Namesake Jhumpa Lahiri explores the clash of cultures and generations and the painful experience of assimilation into alien culture. Anuradha Marwah-Roy’s Idol Love (1999) presents a terrifying picture of an Indian dystopia in the twenty-first century. Meena Alexander’s Nampally House (1991), and Rani Dharker’s The Virgin Syndrome (1997) deal with various aspects of college life. Divakaruni’s Arranged Marriage (1995), depicts women on the brink of an unforgettable change in their outlook. So do the books, The Mango Season By Amulya Malladi and Matrimonial Purposes (2003) by Kavitha Daswani which play with the theme of arranged marriage. Gypsy Masala (2000),a story of dreams by Preethi Nair, presents the theme of chasing dreams. Anita Rau Badami’s third novel Can You Hear the Nightbird Call (2006), explores what endurance in difficult situations mean. Nightbird spans from 1926 India to 1985 Canada. The three narrative female voices; Sharan, Leela and Nimmo, share the tragedy of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Usha K.R’s A Girl and a River (2007), has the female protagonist in the backdrop of freedom struggle in India, tracing the path of her aunt Kavery’s life. It holds a key to the family secret. It would throw light on the reason behind her fractured life and the hostility between her parents. Samina Ali’s Madras on Rainy Day (2004) deals with the clash of cultures and enforced marriages. It portrays the repressed life of Layla, whose education is divided between Indian and American schools and who is expected to marry a complete stranger and to live in purdah. It is about loss of personal freedom, loss of speech, of broken voices with long silences in-between, in the lives of women trapped in a patriarchal society. Bapsi Sidhwa’s Water (2006) revolves round the life of child widows, and pictures the stark life of misery that they live in. Set in 1938, against the backdrop of Gandhiji’s rise to power, the story is of eight-year-old Chuyia, abandoned at a widow’s ashram after the death of her elderly husband. There, unwilling to accept her fate, she resists, becomes a medium for change in the lives of other widows.
Some of the major themes of contemporary women writers are feminism, sex, identity crisis, alienation and loneliness. Smriti Singh delineates the way woman has been handled as a literary construct by women writers from the pre-independence time to the contemporary times. She affirms that “Women as rebels” came into prominence in the novels that are foreground in the independence movement. The women later became the protagonists in many post-independence Indian novels; especially where the seething discontent of women’s psyche came under inquiry. Then there is the favorite theme of the conflict between tradition and modernity. In the earlier novels women fought against major social issues such as child marriage and denial of education among others. The contemporary novels saw women fight against predetermined, secondary-status, social roles doled out to them. What stands out is their courage and resilience. Smriti suggests that the writers of the two periods nevertheless search for self-awareness and identity. Earlier, the conflict was external, while later, it turned inward. She concludes, woman’s portrayal, “…is neither idealized on the lines of Sita, Savitri, and Shakuntala nor placed on a pedestal and worshipped as a goddess… There is intense introspection and analysis within her, as she tries to come to terms with the crisis of being caught in a changing society.” (Singh, 2005:162).
In spite of a plethora of themes, there appears to be a discontent among readers about the perceived lack of complexity in the Indian novels. Gupta echoes the general feelings of readers:
Modern Indian fiction, though rich and complex, suffers from a
certain lack of variety …in exploring such themes as political
and socioeconomic issues, personal relationships, and various
aspects of individual sensibility, it yet more or less neglects
many areas of human experience. Ecology and environment-
related themes, travel and adventure, science fiction and other
forms of fantasy, utopias and dystopias (technological and
otherwise)--these are rarely dealt with… Moreover, feminism
in modern Indian fiction has often been too descriptive and not
sufficiently critical. (Gupta, 1994).
Traditionally, the work of women writers has been underrated, due to patriarchal postulation of superior male artistic creativity, and prejudice of women writers’ inferior domestic themes, based on their circumscribed experience. In addition, Indian women writers in English are fatalities of a second prejudice, which is that English is available only to writers of rich, educated classes, and consequently, the ever present danger of veering off from the reality of commonplace Indian life. Shashi Deshpande admits that when she writes in English she is aware that she will be reaching out to an audience who will be English-speaking; may be fewer in number; and thinking like her. The majority of these novels depict the psychological suffering of the frustrated housewife. This subject matter is often considered superficial compared to the depiction of the repressed and oppressed lives of women of the lower classes that we find in regional authors writing in Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu, and other native languages. In the field of regional fiction, four women writers, Arundhati Roy, Anita Nair, Kamala Das, and Susan Viswanathan from the south, have stood out and made it count in the larger national arena while the culture of other regions has been represented by other women writers.
1. Holmstrom, Lakshmi. Ed. The Inner Courtyard.Stories by Indian Women. New Delhi: Rupa & Co. Twelfth impression. 2002. ix-x. Pxi. Print.
2. Bajaj, Manjul. “Women’s transition in literature.” Deccan Herald. 10 April 2011. Print.
3. Singh, Smriti. “The ‘New Woman‘in Post-independence novels: An Emerging Image.” Studies in women writers in English. Eds. Mohit K Ray and Rama Kundu. Delhi: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 2005.162. Print.
4. Gupta R. K. “Trends in Modern Indian Fiction.” World Literature Today. 68.2 (1994): 301: 306. Web. 11.08.2010. <www.questia.com>.