Women writers from South Asia met in New Delhi recently for a colloquium titled `The Power of the Word'. This was the first public event organized by Women's World India, as also the first international event of Women's World (a free-speech network of feminist writers addressing issues of gender-based censorship). Twenty-one writers (English and regional languages) came from different parts of India, five from Pakistan, four from Bangladesh, three from Sri Lanka, and one from Nepal. Apart from South Asia, one writer from Peru, and two each from Russia and the USA, also participated in the colloquium.
Major themes during the colloquium ' of interest to writers anywhere on the globe today ' included challenges posed by the market and imperialistic forces. Have internal divisions and conflicts, exacerbated by external forces, led to a shrinking of space for the creative artiste? In answer to this question, Fahmida Riaz, an eminent Urdu poet from Pakistan, said, "There is no need to give in to despair. Space is closing up, but we must respond by creating alternatives. Having been chairperson of the National Book Council of Pakistan, I can say with authority that what we need is coordinated efforts for book publishing and book selling. Rather than whining about all the problems we face, we must work to get our act together."
Nabaneeta Dev Sen, eminent Bengali writer and academic, noted that the maximum number of Bengali books sell locally, at book fairs. Approximately 150 book fairs are held each year in different corners of Bengal. However, as soon as neo-literates gain mastery over English, they abandon the regional tongue in favor of the globalized medium.
Pratibha Nandkumar from Karnataka intervened to say that regional writers actually know their audiences, whereas writers in the English language write for unknown, faceless readers. Vaidehi, also from Karnataka, said, "'For whom are we writing?' We must not ask this question. Theatre artistes can ask for whom they are performing, singers can ask for whom they are singing, but a writer must not ask this question. I write, with the confidence that one day someone will read me."
Volga, noted Telugu writer, disagreed vehemently: "I cannot write if I do not know whom I am writing for. In the 1980s and '90s, I wrote for middle-class women who eagerly read my novels and short stories. Now I want to write for the younger generation but they are not reading Telugu! I want to go to the rural communities and write about them, for them."
From Bangladesh, Niaz Zaman traced the changes in her consciousness as she grew from a tomboyish girl climbing trees and chewing unripe guavas, to a woman experiencing discrimination in society, and writing about it. She said, "The discrimination is sometimes subtle, at other times not so subtle." Mandrakanta Sen, Bangladeshi poet, noted, "Often men want to see women as sex dolls, rather than as mature, thinking human beings. The globalized market also wants to see us in the same way."
A. Mangai from Tamil Nadu commented: "Many publishers today want women writers because women's writing has become a saleable commodity. But we do not know which publishers want the serious women writers!"
Geetanjalishree, the well-known Hindi writer, insisted that we have to stop seeking validation from the same markets and the same forces that have commodified women. Pakistan's Feryal Ali Gauhar was in complete agreement: "It's time we stopped looking to the imperial powers for validation."
Sri Lanka's Ameena Hussein expressed innate confidence when she said, "I write for myself. But there is a resonance that other people feel. This could happen with a reader far away from my setting. So actually, I write for everybody."
Esther David, whose books have documented the social history of Bene Israelite Jews in India, presented a similar perspective when she said, "I am my first reader.... One does not write for financial returns which, in any case, are minimal. It is a myth that the writer in the English language is handsomely paid. After 10 to 15 years of being published, I earn barely enough from my writing - perhaps just enough to eat one meal a week!"
Arunachal Pradesh's Temsulo Ao traced discriminatory practices against women in the Ao community - exclusion from village councils, church priesthood, cultural performances, and property ownership - although there is no explicit physical violence. She analyzed, "Many women are reconciled to their passivity. Rebellion might break the network of family bonding and emotional attachments. Writing is my way of saying I want to break free of these shackles."
Faustina Bama from Tamil Nadu asserted that caste, class and gender are markers of social exclusion. She said, "I am a dalit woman writer. The challenge for a writer is to remain rooted. I have experienced pain, hunger - and contempt. My story is my people's story. I teach Class 4 in my village primary school. There are 60 children, first-generation learners. As a single woman, I look after my own household. Sometimes there is no energy left for writing!
"For me, writing is not a hobby. Through my writing, I allow the militancy of the victimized persons to emerge. I believe the life experiences of people can be conveyed only in their own language. My writing has been called bawdy and immoral. It has broken a lot of taboos. I did not write for publication; my first book, I wrote for my own healing. Some friends saw it and liked it.... After publication, I was attacked... my parents were attacked. But I feel satisfaction when ripples of consciousness surface in my community due to my writing. Writing has helped me break down a thousand barriers."
Sunethra Rajakarunanayake from Sri Lanka spoke of her mother's strong political consciousness, which was suppressed and drove her to a mental breakdown. Even today, she said, women face discrimination if they speak or write on certain issues, such as different sexual preferences. She said, "My first books were rejected by the custodians of cultural orthodoxy. But 25 books later, I find the army of cultural guardians is shrinking. Anyway, I did not wait for their `character certificates'! I kept writing. Now my books have been accepted in the curriculum and reading lists of colleges. That is a victory!"
Anita Thampi, a poet from Kerala, spoke of `deceptive exclusions'. She said whereas there is no explicit exclusion in Kerala, yet women writers are barely acknowledged in the critics' galleries and the writers' platforms. The exclusions are fluid and undefined. "Writing", she noted, "is an assertion of the individual. Clearly, the path is easier for a male." Both family and workplace instill a feeling of guilt in the woman writer.
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem and Meredith Tax from USA, Nadia Azhigikhina and Olga Lipovskkaya from Russia, and Mariella Sala from Peru, confirmed the difficulties women face when speaking in their own voices, due to inner and outer censorship, imposed by culture and by the globalized marketplace.
The three-day colloquium provided space for vibrant discussion on some vital issues. Such forums need to be rendered increasingly open and broad-based, including the voices of many more women writers in order to make its deliberations even more grounded, meaningful and forward-looking.