In the way of so many contemporary marriages, this week my wife is out of the country on a business trip and I’m in sole charge of our 16-month-old daughter, teething, cranky, and unconcerned about her father’s imperative to read and write, to make his deadline for this review. Prone, like so many men, to self-pity, I think — at 2.40am, as my daughter cavorts to her own strange Circadian pulse — of the critic Cyril Connolly’s line about there being “no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall”. Not that I’m confusing the artist with the jobbing hack, or conflating the creativity required to write, with the shoddy charlatanry of book reviewing. But I understand that family is a drag. That domestic responsibility is a drag. That the things required to write are the things that parents of very young children don’t have — time and space of one’s own.
Women reading the above paragraph would be right to roll their eyes. “This woman’s world,” as Kate Bush sang, “ooh it’s hard on a man”. Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One’s Own , notes that woman as created by male writers is a “very queer, composite being”. This creature looms large in the male imagination, Woolf remarks, but: “practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history... Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband.”
Freedom, so essential to writers, has been so withheld from women that writing has perforce become a kind of rebellion, each word written by a woman a tool employed to free other women trapped behind the wallpaper. This is why something so seemingly normal and natural as women writing for as long as there has been writing still needs special treatment, needs awards dedicated only to women writers, and needs projects like Unbound, an admirably earnest effort to anthologise in a single, relatively slim volume 2,000 years of Indian women’s writing. That such a volume should not only exist but be necessary is a matter of abiding shame.
Annie Zaidi, the poet and writer who has put together Unbound , admits in her introduction that she used to dismiss what she called ‘kitchenized’ fiction, the domestic settings that critics dismiss as typical of dull novels written by women. “It took me over a year of exclusively reading women writers to realise how deep and strong the roots of my own bias were and how foolish our undermining of ‘domestic’ fiction.” If Connolly was being clever, facetious, with his pram in the hall observation (few male writers have let a baby take precedence over their work), you can understand why a writer like Krishna Sobti might echo his sentiment. Zaidi writes that Sobti believes that “families and marriages were anti-art, anti-writing”. “Yet,” Zaidi adds, “it is marriage and family that form the basis of her own writing.”
I’m not sure I understand Zaidi’s ‘yet’ — Sobti isn’t suggesting that marriage and family are not worthy subjects for art but that women who are artists may find that marriages and family are constraints, obstacles they will have to overcome to do their work.
In an extract from the 19th-century Bengali writer Rassundari Devi, the reader will find evidence for Sobti’s belief. Trying to teach herself to read, Devi has smuggled a page out of the Chaitanya Bhagavata into the kitchen (where else?): “But there was never any time to look at it. I finished cooking very late in the night. After that was over, the children started waking up, one after the other. And then it was pandemonium! One says, Ma, I need to pee, another says, Ma, I am hungry, and yet another says, Ma, take me on your lap, while someone else wakes up and starts bawling.”
The poet Nabaneeta Dev Sen also writes about the mother-artist’s conflicted feelings. In one poem children are like “Whirling tops inside my brain / Leaping clapping shrieking creaking / Upon the rusty springs of my nerve ends.” While in another, she writes of her daughter: “Clutching your baby hands in my fist / I hold the future in my debt forever / Antara, in an instant you have filled all time / By your grace I am coeval with the earth today.”
Children, husbands, chores, these are at once vivifying and deadening. Too often though it’s the latter. An Indian woman, especially a poor woman, shoulders an unforgiving burden. As the Tamil novelist and former IAS officer P Sivakami, who founded a political party in 2009, writes of a character: “Anandhayi could not help feeling bitter. She was fed up with life. She was reduced to being just a mother to her children.” Or, as in Anita Agnihotri’s ‘Why Does That Girl Trudge Across?’, in which a man is watching a young woman crossing a bridge: “One look at the figure and he knows she’s in an advanced state of pregnancy. She has a load on her head, a child on her hip. Perhaps it’s asleep or can’t walk yet... Yes, today the temperature is about 47 degrees centigrade. Why else would the baby be lifeless like that?”
What pleasure there is to be found, fleetingly in food, say, or sex, it is taken at the risk of social censure or violence. This is not to say that Unbound is hundreds of pages of misery and drudgery. I counted 106 writers represented in the anthology, ranging from poets writing in Pali to the already celebrated likes of Mahasweta Devi and Arundhati Roy. Inevitably, there is humour, lust, rage, joy, greed, shame, the entire panoply of human emotion. But, as a man reading this book, my overwhelming impression from Unbound was of a cri de coeur, a defiant insistence that, to adapt a phrase, women’s lives matter.
Simply put, it would be a better world if an anthology such as Unbound was not necessary, was not essential, but was to seem as absurd as an anthology of 2,000 years of Indian men’s writing.
Shougat Dasgupta is a freelance journalist