Important Autobiographies of Modern India - Part II
Autobiography is indeed a very precious medium in the hands of thinking women. Although feminism tells us not to create divisions in universal sisterhood; nevertheless differences do exist. While malnutrition, child marriage, illiteracy, lack of education facilities, and safe child birth may be the concerns of masses of women in India; the needs of women from literary, scientific, intellectual and artistic fields are entirely different. In fact, it’s a challenge for democracies all over the world to protect the rights of the sophisticated few.
While ‘vote’ lies with masses; the direction, the guiding thought might be with the highly and truly educated. When the basics of life have been taken care of, mental needs take precedence. Companionship, sharing, understanding, and co-operation are some of the requirements of highly emancipated women. A sense of worth, a sense of fulfillment, recognition and respect are essential for the kind of women we are going to discuss now.
Women, in general, have this craving for friendship (may be with women only) for necessary communication. ‘How I felt; how I made others feel; I was jilted; I felt suffocated; I wanted to feel ‘needed’, I remembered my childhood’ etc., – these things are important for women. Just see how tears easily trickle down a woman’s eyes. Women and emotions are inseparable.
Patriarchy is still in full swing. Patterns of discrimination might have changed but they are very much there. Today, the world of women has opened up to offices, universities and other work places. The comfort of the inner space, the ‘zenana’, the ‘aangan’ comes from the genre of autobiography.
Some years back, a very noble project was taken up in Gujarat where the lives of Dalit women were recorded in their own version. Those who took up the project, called it ‘oral autobiography’ where the woman would talk to the researcher and her words, her expressions were recorded and written down by the researcher. Much remains to be desired in terms of gender equality in our society. To solve all these intricacies and conflicts between the outer and the inner space, many women have written autobiographies and have given vent to their emotions.
Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya, the well-known freedom fighter has written her autobiography named, ‘Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces: Memoirs’. Kamala Devi was a staunch feminist. She wanted complete equality for women, nothing less, nothing more. Women like Kamala Devi are the reason why Indian Constitution gives exactly equal rights to men and women. She was revolutionary to the core. Today, when India is talking about physical assault on women, the words of Kamala Devi become relevant, ‘Young blossoming girls were wrecked physically and psychologically which by all moral code is rape… the murders and rapes go on while we sit and gloat over past glories of dead and gone Sitas and Savitries.’ (Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya, The Awakening of Indian Women. 1949. Madras: The Evening Press)
The whole life of Kamala Devi was devoted to see a gender-friendly atmosphere. She lived and died for the rights of women. Her autobiography reflects her thinking. She had a philosophical temperament. She went into the perspective of a problem. As the title suggests, she has tried to balance her inner and outer life through this book. She had complete faith in her ideology, that is, feminism. Her exposure to fine education led her to develop very modern views. Her views sound radical even today. She describes how she once persuaded Gandhiji for letting women participate directly and vehemently in the freedom struggle,
‘Other hopes and plans were running through my mind. As batches for the first ‘satyagraha’ were to be selected, I asked that women be included. I was told that Gandhiji did not want them as he had other programs reserved for them. I was flabbergasted. I had built up a whole edifice of hopes of involving women in this great adventure. This was to be their breakthrough. They simply had to be in it, I told myself desperately. The only course was to get it clarified by the leader himself.
My conversation with Gandhiji was fairly brief. As I expressed to him the cause of my unhappiness, he cut me short emphatically disabusing my mind of the suspicion of discrimination. ‘The tasks reserved for women are a tribute to the high qualities they possess… the call for women is not only for slogan shouting but utter dedication which was a natural quality for women’, he explained patiently. But I had to persist. He finally conceded. ‘Let them also participate in direct action. The significance of non-violent struggle is that everyone can take equal part and share the triumph. This struggle is ideally suited for women. Are you content? I have one request to make. I want you to give a call to women asking them to join the freedom struggle. I would like you to carry the message’. His eyes twinkled as he gave a laugh, ‘you don’t know your sisters if you think they need a special message’.
Such was Kamala Devi’s life. After Independence, she refused to take positions of power and worked tirelessly for the cause of women.
From this highly patriotic and idealistic scenario, I’m changing the tone completely. We’re turning to another fire-brand of modern India, Amrita Pritam.
Amrita Pritam’s autobiography ‘The Revenue Stamp’ was published in 2004. She says, ‘Whatever happened in my life happened between the layers of thought that found their way into novels and poems. What was left? Still, I thought I might write a few lines – something to complete the account book of my life and at the end, seal it with this revenue stamp as it were or am I with this revenue stamp setting a seal to my novels and poems… my entire literary work…I wonder’.
As expected, Amrita is brutally candid in this book. All the family secrets are out in the open. Libido plays an important role in driving life. Amrita for one has a strong libido. Her urge to love, to live, to feel, to experience is exceptional. She wants to run amok. She falls in love with her head over heels many times in her life. Each relationship has an intensity of its own. She wants to experience it all. Interestingly each relationship has a limited life of it as well.
Amrita remained a refugee all her life. After a period, she believes in calling it a day and say ‘good bye’ to Mr. Lover or Mr. Husband whosoever he might be and just move on. There were always other things to do; other books to write. Amrita did not believe in lowering the might of the flame, the passion that she felt for persons or life in general. We may agree with her style of living or writing or not; she stands tall with all her literary works. She had friends, men both Hindus and Muslims, both from India and Pakistan. Amrita’s family had come from Pakistan. For her, Pakistan was a living reality. She valued our shared past with Pakistan.
Amrita’s romance with her own youth, her own bewitching beauty is supreme. She welcomes her youth with applause. She’s intoxicated by her youth. She’s free to share it with one and all. Her mother had attracted a religious man and had married him. Therefore, Amrita loves tales of apsaras like Urvashi and Menaka who spoil the meditation of saints and bring them to realize the importance of carnal pleasures. Amrita celebrates feminine charms and their impact. Amrita narrates her unlimited infatuation for poet Sahir Ludhiynavi. She says she used to write his name hundreds of times. She used to smoke the cigarette butts left by Sahir. Such was her passion! And she writes it all. When Sahir dies, she questions even the flames of the pyre:
Mujhe lagta hai ki shamshan ki aag, aag ka apman hai
Kisi Sohini, Shashi, ya Heer me
Jo aag jalti hai
Mujhe uss aag ki pehchan hai.
(The fire of the cremation ground
is an insult to fire.
I identify with fire
that burns in the heart
of a girl, Sohini, Shashi, or Heer)
This is Amrita Pritam and her brand of life.
Kamala Das wrote her autobiography in 1996. She had her own compulsions to do this work. As she describes in Preface to the book:
‘My Story’ is my autobiography which I began writing during my first serious bout with heart disease. The doctor thought that writing would distract my mind from the fear of a sudden death and besides there were all the hospital bills to be taken care of… Between short hours of sleep induced by the drugs given to me by the nurses, I wrote continually, not only to honor my commitment but because I I wanted to empty myself of all the secrets so that I could depart when the time came with a scrubbed out conscience… The serial had begun to appear in the issues of the journal which flooded the book stalls in Kerala. My relatives were embarrassed. I had disgraced my well-known family by telling my readers that I had fallen in love with a man other than my lawfully wedded husband… This book has cost me many things that I held dear but I do not for moment regret having written it.’
Kamala Das had a way with words, no one can deny that. And she has the substance too. The core of her autobiography lies in the fact that she was chained in a loveless, torturous, meaningless marriage. It was mis-match from the word ‘go’. Das as a woman has strong physical and emotional desires. She is not shy of her hunger for bodily and mental pleasures. She wants her cup full. She wants to taste life, all flavors. She describes her sexual, romantic adventures and even misadventures. What makes her book worthy is her complete honesty, ‘I have often wished to take myself apart and stick all the bits, the heart, the intestines, the liver, the reproductive organs, the skin, the hair, and all the rest on a large canvas to form a collage which could then be donated to my readers. I have no secrets at all. Each time I have wept, the readers have wept with me. Each time I walked to my lovers’ houses dressed like a bride, my readers have walked with me. I have felt their eyes on me right from my adolescence when I published my first story and was called controversial. Like the eyes of an all-seeing God They follow me through the years. (206)
This is the strength of Kamala Das. She is simply unabashed. This gives weight to her words. Many call her autobiography out rightly vulgar. But for me, a woman who had gone through what Kamala Das had, writing was a means of survival; whatever her artistic capabilities. She was writing so that she could forget; so that she could do away with humiliation, public mockery. I don’t blame her for her openness. She was writing for matured minds, after all. We should not forget the horror that her life had been.
Unlike Amrita Pritam or Kamala Das, Indira Goswami seems very cautious about narrating events from her personal life in her ‘An Unfinished Autobiography’. She seems forever to be on the defensive. However the value of her book lies in her description of corruption in the name of religion at Vrindavan. That’s where she really hits hard. The condition of widows living in Vrindavan is a national shame. While I found the first part out her of Goswami’s autobiography disappointing simply because of her guarded attitude about her conduct; the second part showed substance because here the sensibilities of the author have been touched. Young widows are trapped into flesh trade, old widows are living and dying like stray dogs. Where is our child god with mischievous eyes, playing and dancing with gopis? It’s heart-breaking. On this point, Goswami succeeds in connecting with the readers.
Nayantara Sahgal has written two autobiographies, ‘Prison and Chocolate Cake’ and ‘From Fear Set Free’. The first one describes the life at Anand Bhavan, the epicenter of India’s freedom movement. Sahgal has mixed personal and political lives rather well. ‘From Fear Set Free’ is a more meditative work and more personal. Sahgal points out reasons why one writes an autobiography: ‘Writing of any sort helps to put your world in order, all the shapeless, bewildering fragments of it. It helps you to figure out what is happening in and around you…These things will never be understood until they are written and sometimes not even then. But writing helps the process.’
Shobha De is a true reflection of the society in which she lives. Her writing, her openness come natural to her. That is why, it’s a bit unusual when we read her autobiography ‘Selective Memory’ and find the same old themes of ‘girl’ child-‘boy’ child syndrome. We thought here was a truly modern woman but she confesses that she tried not to glow during her pregnancies because people told her that glowing mothers give birth to ‘girl’ child. The complex roots back to her own birth, ‘Unfortunately for my mother I was not the second son she prayed for. My birth could not possibly have been a day of celebration for the family especially my maternal grandmother was around reminding everybody that the third daughter had arrived as an additional liability.’
Autobiography as a genre demands some extra honesty, openness and sincerity. The thread of faith between the reader and the writer is the most important thing. Any life-story if it is written to hide things cannot be called worth reading. Moreover those who write autobiographies believe in the value of life. A person who thinks that life is a co-incidence; that life has no meaning; that life is useless - such a person would never attempt an autobiography. Those who think that life has a message, some purpose - only such persons would attempt autobiography. In this sense, it is a very positive medium. There’s more to life than what meets the eye. There’s a pattern. Those who take their life seriously, write down their life story. Often, there’s a trap in this genre of being over self-centered. The writer has the danger of being too much in love with herself or himself. But good human beings and good writers often strike a balance between experiences and the self. Their indulgence of the self never shows itself. Their narration of the self comes in relation to various experiences with other human beings and in different situations. The perspective is definitely that of the writer but it’s never awkwardly felt. After all, all writing is an extension of the self.
When it comes to women writing autobiographies, the scene gets very different from men writing autobiographies. The difference is that of focus. While women zoom in on private, delicate, emotional moments; men describe the world. This is very natural. A woman defines herself by her relationships; a man by his work. The trend might be changing but so far it has not. Women assert their individual identity through writing but identity itself is composed of how others see her, how others accept her, how much she is loved, how much she is needed. It’s a scary psychological truth that human life needs sustenance. Thought of desertion, loneliness troubles the human mind. I’m reminded of a very basic sentence taught to us in IX standard, ‘Man is a social animal’. Human beings are animals. Human beings also need company. Human mind finds solace in relationships. Just as we an urge to move around, be free and roaming; we have an equally strong urge to settle down, to love and be loved. I find women’s autobiographies to an expression of this latter urge.
(This was delivered as a lecture at Academic Staff College, GG Central University, Bilaspur, Chhatisgarh, India on 12th March 2013)
Related Books and Websites:
Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya. 1986. Inner Recesses, Outer Spaces: Memoir. New Delhi: Navrang.
Elaine Showalter. 1971. Women’s Liberation and Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace.
Kamala Das. 1996. My Story. New Delhi: Sterling.
Amrita Pritam. 2004. The Revenue Stamp. New Delhi: Vikas.
Nayantara Sahgal. 1954. Proson and Chocolate Cake
Nayantara Sahgal. 1962. From Fear Set Free
Shobha De.1998. Selective Memory. New Delhi: Orient Longman.