When tracing the rise of the independent woman in India, it would be both premature and unfair to forego relevant literature of the country, which has empowered the ruthlessly suppressed Indian woman through its female characterisations.
Some of the more liberal writers of our country have given us important and powerful women narratives that have been assimilated into our country’s feminist culture. Today at Homegrown, we curate some of the most important literary works that not just every woman or every feminist--far too loaded a word these days, it seems--must read, but which, with their strong story arcs, promise to thrill any bibliophile even while providing a strong impetus to the independent woman of India.
I. Lakshmi Puran
By Balaram Das
Das’s novel was probably the first attempt in the country to challenge male hegemony and casteism, and is just what Hindu mythology lacked for a long time--a central female perspective. Most of our tales till its publishing had been fixated with the idea of an all powered male (god-like) human, and had always sidelined women to pivotal, but secondary characters.
In Lakshmi Puran, we are presented with an empowered vision of Goddess Lakshmi, who challenges the dominance exerted on her by her husband Lord Vishnu, and her brother-in-law, Jagannath, as she chides them to a visceral curse for belittling her, a circumstance of her acquaintance with a woman of low caste. Not only does the book look down upon immoral social bindings, but it also provides an exemplary figure of strength in Goddess Lakshmi. A reminder that not just every devotee but every person dismissive of our legends, needs.
Read a free, abridged version of the story right here.
II. The Palace of Illusions
By Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
The Mahabharata is an epic tale of kingdoms, brethren, war, karma and the will to abide by righteousness or dharma. The most central figures in the myth have always been men, whether it’s the good-doing Pandavas, to the miscreant Kauravas, to the host of the story, Krishna. The women had always been renegaded to the roles of mothers and wives, spectators, if anything.
All, but one, Draupadi, the wife of all the five Pandavas, who had to bear the brunt of the rivalry with an incident carefully strategised to insult her. And then, she was left to be the victim whose insult was avenged by her husbands in the war of Kurukshetra. In Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, the entire story is etched out from Draupadi’s perspective and her unfair participation, right from her betrothal to the 5 Pandavas, to her fire test, and her survival in a male-dominated universe. A powerful, moving read and easily palatable for anybody who particularly enjoyed the perspective of Sita Sings The Blues.
You can buy Banerjee’s classic here at a reduced price.
III. Nastanirh (Charulata)
By Rabindranath Tagore
Better known for its film adaptation titled ‘Charulata’ by Satyajit Ray, Nastanirh literally translates into ‘The Broken Nest’ and in Charulata, Tagore painted his most vulnerable heroine. A heroine, who was not unmindful of a neglecting husband, and in that aloofness, became susceptible to the charms of another man. Tagore’s Charulata is one of the most famous heroines in Indian literature thanks to how sensitively he handled the topic. Rather than painting a picture of a demonic, ungrateful woman, he created one of the most homanizing characters, showcasing the complexity of women, something that often surpasses that of males but is never given a chance to thrive. He never judges her meandering while it might have normally been given society’s yardstick of judgement, especially if done by a woman.
The conclusion finds Charu’s husband, guilty only obliviousness, coming back to compromise with his wife, who grieves the walking away of the man she had fallen for, and thus ultimately forgives her husband. A both fitting and empowering end to the story.
Find an online version here.
While Lihaaf, which contained mild inferences of a growing relationship between two women, may not be considered a breakout story today in terms of treatment and prominence, what makes the story an important one in India is the feminist struggle of its writer, and the time when the story was released.
Ismat Chughtai was not only one of the strongest female writers of her generation, but she approached a subject like homosexuality in the 1940s in a language like Urdu, no less, and was even tried for it in the Lahore court. In Ismat’s fight, this story suddenly comes to fore as the progressive imagination of a free and radical writer like herself, and hence was greatly lauded by the intellectuals of her time as well as the feminists of today.
You can read it online here.
V. The God of Small Things
By Arundhati Roy
While Arundhati Roy’s booker prize winning novel won over and irked many critics alike, it provided one of contemporary Indian literature’s fiercest women characters in Ammu, the mother of the twins from whose perspective the book is written.
Having drawn inspiration for the character of Ammu from her own mother, Roy gives us a woman who breaks conformity and societal rules in her orthodox Syrian family. Right from marrying outside her faith, to divorcing her inefficient husband, and to acting upon her feelings and pursuing a relationship with a man below her caste, Ammu is a fiery character. Perhaps a little troubled and impulsive, she is still incredibly endearing and admirable for her strong convictions and sheer ability to stick by them even when it required non-conformity. The fact that Ammu was no highly educated modernist, makes the story even more empowering and appealing to us.
You can buy a paperback version of the novella here at a good price.
VI. The First Promise
By Ashapurna Devi
What makes Ashapurna Devi, a self taught writer, who never even went to school one of the most important literary figures in the women’s movement? Her ability to question trite social conformities through the strength of her characters at a time when society was not used to being questioned as yet.
In The First Promise, Ashapurna Devi gave us the legendary character of Satyabati, a self-taught woman like the author, who challenges patriarchal setups and maps empowerment as she progresses from a family bound set up to a more independent space, in virtue of her freedom. The author presents to use the issues of child marriage, caste hierarchy and sexual politics, maintaining a challenging tone that still rings loud today.
You can buy a paperback version of the book here.
By Bharati Mukherjee
In Jasmine, Bharati Mukherjee presents the ever important situation of culture shock and anxiety that a young Indian woman experiences on her relocation to The United States. A young widow, bound by the shackles of her country’s grip, the author gives us a woman who is not hesitant to shed her previously assumed roles in her movement across borders in an attempt to wear a stronger cape. She is often shown disassociating herself with any position that might hold her back, while assuming newer names and identities in a bid for social survival.
Buy it here.
VIII. The Glassblower’s Breath
By Sunetra Gupta
The Glassblower’s Breath presents a meandering tale that takes place through the course of a single day. An intimate insight into a woman’s mind as she seeks refuge in recollecting all the men that her heart ever fantasised, what Sunetra provides is not just the summary of a woman’s fantasies but her stubborn refutal of conformity to the definitions the men in her life have subjected her to. With unhurried prose, and long sentences sans punctuation, the author weaves the reader into a tale that spans three countries, and questions all of society’s gender roles for women.
Buy a hardcover or paperback version here.
Words: Meher Manda
[If you enjoyed this article, do check out Bombay-inspired novels we think are perfect for Monsoon reading.]