When Baby Haldar’s ‘Aalo Andhari’ came out in 2002, it was a bombshell. A searing narration of how she was sold off at 13, raped, and then eked out a living as a domestic worker, stealing time to write between work, the book catapulted Haldar into literary stardom.
When her book was translated into English in 2006 by writer and publisher Urvashi Butalia, it took her fame global. The royalties from the book allowed her three children to be put in good schools, and build a small house for herself. But despite all this, she never earned like a superstar writer, and continues to work in an NGO.
In many ways, Haldar’s story encapsulates the journey of women and writing in India – one that has made giant strides but continues to be dogged by old prejudices and structural restraints. It also spotlights the change women from the margins can effect when they pick up the pen.
The publishing scene
When Butalia and Ritu Menon set up Kali for Women in 1984, the biggest challenge was to get women to believe what they had to say was important, says Butalia.
And the logistical hiccups, as a publishing company were many. Radha Kumar’s ‘A History of Doing’, which would go on to be a seminal text in feminist literature, was commissioned in the mid 1980s but published only in 1993. During the writing of ‘Recasting Women’ by Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, Butalia would take turns to babysit Sangari’s infant child so that she could focus on her writing.
In 2003, Menon and Butalia split, with the former setting up Women Unlimited and the latter Zubaan Books. For Butalia, a big change is the number of women writing today, and the variety of genres they are writing in. She gives the examples of humour and satire, which used to be male preserves.
The primary concern remains about how to give “voice to collective knowledge created from ground,” Butalia argues.
Breaking the stereotype
The stereotype of women writers not selling well has also been smashed. “Some of our prominent books by women authors -Arundhati Roy’s ‘God of Small Things’, ‘Ministry of Utmost Happiness’, and Sudha Murty’s books ‘Three Thousand Stitches’ and ‘Wise and Otherwise’ collectively sold several lakhs of copies,” said Ranjana Sengupta, deputy publisher, Penguin Random House India, which is running a campaign called The Women’s Library with SheThePeople to showcase women writers online.
At the other end of the spectrum are small publishing houses that were the pioneers of women’s writing and are women-led and run. Mandira Sen, who set up Stree Books in 1990, states that big companies were risk averse in the early years. but this has changed, as has Dalit, LGBT writing.
From the margins
The span of women’s writing now spans satire to science fiction, from queer-trans experiences and North eastern writing to Dalit articulation. But it was not always like this.
Maya Sharma, who wrote the landmark 2006 book ‘Loving Women’, remembers the pervasive silence around lesbian experiences, even within the Left and women’s movement. “I thought I would have difficulty finding people to talk, but people were keen to share their lives,” she says.
Similar ground was broken by Tamil writer Living Smile Vidya’s searing autobiography and A Revathi’s ‘The Truth About Me’, which transformed the literature around transpeople in India and brought out many trans writers.
The bias against women from marginalised communities is often pernicious and subtle, as academic Ghazala Jamil found out. She was repeatedly asked by senior academics to lay out experiences and narratives but avoid theorising.
A similar curtain of silence continues to veil disabled women writers and their issues.
Some of the biggest transformation in literature has been led by Dalit women, who have changed not only what women’s experiences mean, but what good literature is. The words of people such as Bama, Shanta Kamble and Urmila Pawar underscore the important place of women in the Ambedkarite movement, and the fact that Dalit women have been writing far before the 80s and 90s.