Now we see her, now we don’t

Janice Pariat | Updated on October 26, 2018 Published on October 26, 2018

Unwritten, unheard: The reasons why a woman was disallowed the means to tell her story run into the millions   -  ISTOCK.COM

For the descendant of a long line of unlettered women, the act of attaching a signature to one’s words is nothing short of radical

“For most of history,” Virginia Woolf wrote, “Anonymous was a woman.”

The one to whom there was no attribute. Who couldn’t put a name, for fear, for shame, for illiteracy, to a novel, a poem, an essay, or a short story. Or one whose name meant so little that it was as good as unknown.

A decade ago, when I joined my first writing job, covering the art beat for a city magazine, I remember seeing my name in print beneath the headline of the article — my first byline. By me. Unexciting as the piece might have been (I spent an afternoon with an artist in his Okhla studio, surrounded by gigantic steel sculptures titled “Yoni”), these were my words. They belonged to me and no one else. This was a few years before my first book was published — and that byline thrill was fresh and new and exciting. Every so often, I’d sneak a peek at the magazine, casually lying on my desk.

It really was me.

Now, as I try to work on a book, amid all the frustration that writing a book brings, I feel I need reminders of how lucky I am to be able to attribute what I write to my own name. It seems so easy, the act of it. Twelve letters. Two words. A small signature. As I open a new blank document and type the novel’s tentative title and follow it with the word “by”, I think of the colossal leap between this preposition and what comes after. A tiny singular space on the screen. A hundred lifetimes of struggle behind it, as recent as a few generations ago within my own family.

I don’t know if my mother’s mother went to school. She lied about her age so she could join the war service at 15 and send home money and food. My mother’s grandmother wasn’t formally educated either. I never met her, but I remember her from old photographs, wrapped in a chequered shawl, sitting outside in the Shillong sun. All her life, she carried clothes her husband tailored to the market on the other side of town, walking through forests and the gathering evening darkness, muttering loudly to herself, pretending to be mad to keep men with evil intentions at bay. But she was wise, my father tells me, “a woman beyond her time”.

My mother dropped out of school in the eighth standard, bullied by Irish nuns who called her stupid for failing mathematics, and not being able to speak a word of her second language, Hindi. Regardless, she finished with private lessons and became a teacher, and then gave it up to be with my father, who worked in the wilds of Assam.

My elder sister was told she must study medicine. She, being young and eager to please, agreed. We may not always get along, but I remember her fighting for me to be allowed to do what I wished to.

Because of her, I am a writer.

It was my sister who taught our nanny the Khasi alphabet. She was from a small village outside Shillong, who fled an abusive husband to look after other people’s children. She would write us letters at school and sign her name — Stian Kharwar. She could sign her name.

On my father’s side, his grandmother was married to the first medical doctor in the North-East, but I doubt she herself had much schooling. She was small, gentle and shawl-wrapped, lost in a century-old house in Cherrapunjee. We fed chickens together; she grew vegetables and flowers.

When I try to imagine what “Anonymous” might have looked like, she constantly shifts. Because she is numerous. Because the reasons why a woman was disallowed the means to tell her story runs into the millions.

Even now, it is difficult to see her.

Sometimes I try to listen instead.

And I think I hear my grandmother and the lady who works in our garden chatting away in the kitchen. Our nanny telling my sister and me scary stories despite my mother’s warnings. My great-grandmother singing to the cauliflowers.

But this too isn’t easy. For their stories are usually interrupted.

Sometimes, Anonymous whispers her name from across the room but I cannot hear her. It is one name and many all at once.

She has been standing there a long while, but when I glance up, she’s missing.

I think I know, though, what she’s been doing through the ages.

Gazing at books she couldn’t read, dusting quills she couldn’t use. All that fuss about keeping house. All those centuries spent waiting outside classrooms.

Or being told she was stupid or unfit. How many times did she turn away from doors closed on her face?

All that cooking and eating last.

All that giving birth and not being allowed to be born.

So much time spent choosing pseudonyms that matched her initials so something felt like her own.

To be anonymous, Woolf meant, was not only to be without a name. Anonymous was a void. It was to be made silent.

Now, may all the words belong to her.




Janice Pariat is the author of The Nine Chambered Heart


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Published on October 26, 2018
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