Indian women tell their stories

The Inner Courtyard: Stories by Indian Women, edited by Lakshmi Holmström
Published by Rupa & Company, 1992, 228 pages.
In Other Words: New Writing by Indian Women, selected by Urvashi Butalia and Ritu Menon
Published by T.H.E. Women’s Press Ltd. / South Asia Books, 1995, 196 pages.

“Women in India have traditionally been tellers of tales. They have used not only the mythic materials of the epics in their local versions, but the lives of gods and the animal fables of the Panchatantra, but also the more realistic material of family history and memories.”
Lakshmi Holmström, in her introduction to The Inner Courtyard

This is a review of two collections of short stories by Indian women, both published in the early 1990s. India has a rich tradition of writing, and of women writers, from Buddhist nuns in the late 17th century to contemporary feminists. The writers in these collections span generations and languages, and apart from two writers who are included in both collections, there are no overlaps.

The Inner Courtyard has a wider span. It includes women who were born at the beginning of the 20th century before India became independent (such as Lalitambika Antarjana) and includes those writing in Indian languages. They range from memories of childhood to the struggles of older women, from stories about women of privilege to women waging war on the privileged.

In Antarjanam’s story, “Revenge Herself”, the ghost of high-caste woman who had become a prostitute tells her story to a woman writer. Mahasveta Devi’s “Draupadi” focuses on a woman in Naxalite movement,[1]  who is captured by the police. But she refuses to break in spite of torture and rape, and uses her battered body as a weapon against the senior officer.

In Other Words focuses on contemporary women writers. As in The Inner Courtyard, many of these stories capture the details of women’s lives. In Manju Kak’s “Twilight” a mother-in-law forced to spend her final years with her son and his wife is mistreated by her daughter-in-law. In “The Smothering” by Ritu Bhatia, Shashi, married to an American man, gives herself over completely to his way of life but realizes that she has given up more than she bargained for. There are some lighter moments too: Manjula Padmanabhan skewers bureaucracy and red tape in “A Government of India Undertaking”, as her protagonist wanders into Bureau of Reincarnation and Transmigration of Souls looking for a new life and is faced with forms to fill in and a search for the right person to speak to.

These tales give a voice to the women who have suffered alone, hiding their grief and pain from their loved ones. They are powerful stories, a testament to the battles women have fought—and still do—often in the secret recesses of the microcosm of the family. 

[1] A far-left guerrilla movement, associated with Marxist ideology.

4 thoughts on “Indian women tell their stories

  1. What a range of perspectives on a world unfamiliar to most readers. Just because books aren’t newly published doesn’t mean they should languish for lack of attention.

    1. suroor alikhan

      Thank you. Part of what I want to do through this blog is to introduce readers to books from different parts of the world. It’s great when people appreciate it!

      1. That’s a great mission for your blog. Discovering and promoting essentially unknown gems is truly needed today. Anybody can enthuse over a bestseller.

  2. suroor alikhan

    A few years ago, some of us started a reading challenge, inspired by Anne Morgan, to read a book from every country in the world. I’m still going, and it’s been a voyage of discovery. You can find out more by looking under The Reading Challenge category on this blog.

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