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April 17, 2015

Women On Top

Text by Nittal Chandarana

In Unbound: 2,000 Years of Women’s Writing you will find everything from marriage and sex from a child’s point of view to the complex relationships women have to food; powerful voices that reach out to us and the status quo

Compiled by Annie Zaidi and published by Aleph book Company, Unbound: 2,000 Years of Women’s Writing is touted to be a collection of stories that shatters stereotypes. The content is as varied — you will find verses from the Therigatha, written by Buddhist nuns (c. 300 BCE) as well as powerful new voices like Arundhathi Subramaniam and Nilanjana Roy. Divided into 11 sections including children, politics, food, spirituality, Unbound is a rare anthology that strives to stray from the conventional. We loved the cover. Here’s curator Annie Zaidi telling us what you will find inside — and promises that the extracts will “change your life”.

1. How did the idea of this anthology come about?
“David Davidar approached me about doing an anthology of Indian women’s writing. There have been anthologies of women’s writing published before, of course. There is a two-volume set edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha, which represented as many Indian women writers as they could find. There have been others which are more contemporary, like Inner Line by Zubaan and Purdah: An Anthology edited by Eunice de Souza. Each book has a different focus. With this anthology, I aimed to be as inclusive as possible in terms of era and the original (Indian) language of writing, but with an eye on showcasing the most significant, most powerful writing by women over the centuries.”

2. What was the selection based on?
“These are not just stories. There are poems, extracts from novels, short stories, essays and plays. I read whatever I could find that was authored by Indian women and was available in English translation. Of that, I made a long list of the most powerful voices, and then whittled that down further to about half. I was somewhat restricted by what was available, who gave permission to reproduce extracts from which book. But finally, the selections reflect my own literary taste.”

3. Unbound is described as a book that shatters stereotypes but most section headers are words stereotypically synonymous with women. How do you seek to break that?

“I disagree with the ‘most’ in your question. The only sections that can be said to be particularly associated with women are ‘Children’ and ‘Food’. Most of the other themes – spirituality, love, sex, marriage, work, politics, war, death – are as much the stereotypical domain of men and male writers as of women. In fact, some of these themes are often not associated with women at all (in a stereotypical sense).

Even in the section on children, I have not included what one might imagine stereotypical representations of what women’s relationship to motherhood and childcare might be. There is great diversity in the writing: one extract looks at a marriage and sex from a child’s point of view; another describes how children and their ideas are formed as much by a male domestic worker as any other family influence. There is a wonderful extract from an essay by Cornelia Sorabji, one of India’s first women lawyers, and she has written beautifully about many different Indian children she met in the course of her work or travels, in a book called Sun Babies. The extract I’ve picked describes a royal zenana where the childless queen is adopting a boy.

Similarly, with food, I wanted to showcase the complex – the human! – relationships women have to food. It is not just that women purchase or cook food. They help to grow it. They can be seduced through food as much as through flowers and candles. They think about the politics of it, as Nilanjana Roy does in her essay on meat-eating (we’ve included a short extract). One of my favourite extracts is from Nayantara Sahgal’s novel Mistaken Identity, wherein she describes a group of prisoners going on hunger strike. It is one of the most evocative passages I have ever read about food or eating.”

5. What is your take on feminism and all the outrage around it?
“I identify as ‘feminist’. I feel like there is no way you can call yourself a decent human being and not be a feminist. It is really very simple – if you believe that women need to have equal rights, that they must have autonomy over their own bodies, that they must make their own physical, philosophical, professional decisions, then you are a feminist. The outrage is often rooted in a fear of upsetting the current power equation, of losing the comfort of what is a familiar context. This applies to both women and men. The reluctance to identify as feminist is rooted in fear too – of being seen as less desirable by men, of not finding a mate (or at least, not the kind of powerful mate you might be seeking), or of having to work harder in order to become truly independent. But we have to understand that nothing comes free. Women have traditionally worked very hard – and done very physically demanding work – but have rarely been paid, because the assumption is that they are being ‘taken care of’. Without money, they have no power to make decisions. What else do we mean when we talk about freedom? The right to make decisions, to be treated as equal both in law and in practice. Feminism, at its core, is just this – that women must have equal freedoms.”

7. Did you have to leave out any stories? Do you regret leaving any out?
“Yes. I really wanted something by Mala Sen (she wrote Bandit Queen, and Death by Fire), and Anita Desai’s In Custody, and Githa Hariharan’s new collection of travel essays. But the rights are with foreign publishers and getting an extract was too expensive (rupees against dollars etc). I also wanted to include Ambai (CS Lakshmi), but could not get permission for a short extract rather than a whole story, which was difficult for me since I wanted to represent the works of nearly 80-90 women. There were a few other names, and in each case, the circumstances were different.”

8. Which are some contemporary female writers you admire?
“Oh, many, many, many! You will note that about half of the writers included in the book are indeed contemporary writers. I have, however, left out very ‘new’ writers – those who’ve started getting published only in the last 8 to ten years. This was a conscious decision because, sometimes, you are blown away by a new book but within a year, the new voice is already fading from your consciousness. Substance has to be balanced against style. A work may or may not have lasting value, but it is difficult to judge that in the short term. In my (limited) experience, it takes a distance of at least 10 years for me to be able to judge a piece of writing in isolation, to look at it against its own light, not against the light of all the other writing that surrounds it.”

9. Currently you are…
“Taking a deep breath and holding it! Also, working on a short documentary, learning new things along the way, freelancing for various magazines and newspapers, and trying to decide if I should work on a script next, or another book.”

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