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‘There never has been a shortage of males criticising women’s writing.’
As with women, so with their writing. I consider it one of the strange ironies of my writing life that, when I began writing, I wrote what was in me, I wrote what came to me. And I did not think that I was writing about women, that my writing came out of the lives of women.
In time, however, I became conscious that my writing was looked at in the same way that the women, about whom I was writing, were. They, and their lives, were less important because they were women. So, too, was my writing less important because of my gender, and because of the gender of my main characters. I was not just a writer, I was a woman writer, a woman writer who wrote about women.
Perhaps the fact that most of my early writing was published in women’s magazines slotted me further as a “women’s writer”. Why had I sent my stories to women’s magazines?
Had I unconsciously imbibed the truth that only these magazines would accept my stories? Whatever it was, being published in these magazines did me much good initially. They published almost all the stories I sent them. I am grateful to them, because they gave me a readership, which was to stand me in good stead in the years to come when I became a novelist.
Being published also helped me to grow as a writer. I strongly believe that one has to be published and read before one can think of oneself as a writer. You see your own writing differently when it is in print.To put your work away in a drawer, to think of yourself as a genius, perhaps a misunderstood genius, can only stunt you as a writer.
But after some years of writing for women’s magazines, I found myself getting restless, claustrophobic. My identity as a woman who wrote for Femina and Eve’s Weekly seemed to stifle me. I wanted to move out, to get into the larger space outside. As a part of this attempt, I went to meet the editor of the magazine section of a Sunday newspaper (yes, they published stories at the time). I was accompanied by a neighbour who knew the editor well. While they conversed, the editor just flipped through the typed pages of my manuscript, scarcely glancing at them, and then asked me, “Why don’t you give this to a women’s magazine?”
I don’t remember what I said; I am sure I was polite, out of regard for my neighbour who had taken the trouble to arrange this meeting. But within me, I was raging, I was arguing with the editor: I am being published in women’s magazines, it is because I want to move out of them that I came here. How can you decide without even reading my story that it is fit only for a women’s magazine? Is your newspaper only for men? Are your readers only men?
Well, that was a long time ago, but I have never forgotten the incident. Never forgotten, either, what happened to another story of mine – the story about Amba, Princess of Kashi, which came to me after reading Irawati Karve’s Yuganta, a brilliant analysis of the characters of the Mahabharata.
I remember my father often said there were only two heroes in the Mahabharata: one, an old man, Bhishma, the patriarch of the Pandavas and the Kauravas, and the other a boy, Abhimanyu, Arjuna’s young son. But Irawati Karve read Bhishma’s character otherwise. To her, he was no hero, he was a man who had been callous towards women. Not deliberately cruel, but worse – indifferent to his own cruelty, almost unaware of it. Irawati lists the women whose lives he ruined: Gandhari, Kunti, Madri and the princesses of Kashi – Amba, Ambika and Ambalika.
After reading Irawati Karve’s version of Bhishma, I wrote a story about Amba. A spirited girl, Amba was in love with a prince, Salva, when she, with her two sisters, was abducted by Bhishma to marry his sickly younger brother, King Vichitravirya. When she told Bhishma about her love for Salva, he let her go. But Salva refused to accept her. He had fought Bhishma after the abduction and had been defeated by him. Amba, he said to her, now belonged to Bhishma.
Hearing of her love for Salva, Vichitravirya refused to marry her. In desperation, she asked Bhishma to marry her. He refused, saying he had taken a vow of celibacy. Three very honourable men indeed, but what about Amba? For her, there was nothing left but disgrace. And so she killed herself.
In the Mahabharata she was reborn as Shikhandi, the man/woman who was destined to fatally injure Bhishma, because Bhishma would never fight with a woman, not even a “half-woman”. This had no place in my story. In my story, Amba’s act of killing herself was her final attempt to have some control over her own life.
It was with this story that I began to think of how words could mean entirely different things to different people, how language had been shaped by men to their needs, their ideas. It was a man’s idea of honour that made Bhishma reject Amba when she asked him to marry her, and a man’s idea of honour that made Salva reject her because he had been defeated by Bhishma.
When I look back, I see that it has always been this concept of “honour” that led to tragedies.
A man’s idea of honour made King Dasharath give in to his wife Kaikeyi’s demand that Rama be exiled, a man’s idea of honour that made Rama accept his father’s diktat, a man’s idea of honour that made Yudhishtira agree to gambling with Shakuni, which led to his losing himself, his brothers and his wife Draupadi in the course of the game. The splendid resistance by Draupadi, which we girls had so admired in school,was futile. A man had a right to do whatever he wanted with his wife.
Two magazines rejected my Amba story, one of them saying that readers would not know who any of these characters were (strange to think that books about mythology are now bestsellers). Finally, a journalist who believed that the story mattered, and who was working for a reasonably progressive newspaper, said she would use it, but only in the special women’s page which came out once a week.
I have problems with women’s pages, women’s hour on radio, or on TV (but not women’s magazines, some might say. Ah, but I had no choice). Reluctantly, I agreed. When my story appeared, it was in such fine print it was almost unreadable.The journalist apologised to me, saying, that was all the space she had; and neither she nor I wanted to edit the story. So there it was, dwarfed and diminished – symbolic, I think now, of the place allotted to women’s writing in the literary world.
I must have been naïve, indeed, not to have expected this, not to understand that, since women were less important, so was their writing, so was writing about them. From Dr Johnson, who compared a woman’s preaching to a dog walking on its hind legs, to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who spoke derisively of “a damned mob of scribbling women”, to Walter Scott, who spoke slightingly, condescendingly, of the “calculating prudence” of Austen’s heroines, and the Nobel Prize winner, Sir Vidia Naipaul, who spoke of women’s sentimentality and narrow view of the world, there never has been a shortage of males criticising women’s writing.
And, of course, there was the Donald Trump of American literature, Norman Mailer, who said, “I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale.” (The implied comment, that the only story written by women which he would find exciting was a story written about women who provide men with sex, is very revealing!) He also said, “A good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls,” which a woman critic called a “testicular definition of talent”! Enough women writers in the USA took him on, but did it make any difference to the thinking, the attitudes, I wonder. No, I am sure it didn’t.
Excerpted with permission from Listen to Me, Shashi Deshpande, Context.