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Thursday, 2 June 2011

Bodymaps -- book review

The problem with anthologies is that they have increasingly begun to show a marked tendency towards predictability. Be it women’s writing, South Asian writing, Dalit writing, regional writing, call-it-what-you-will writing, certain names are very ubiquitous and invariably crop up like tired ghosts. Their stories are printed and re-printed, anthologized and preferred over other, less-heard voices – so much so, that they are, often erroneously, assumed to be representative of their breed.  The problem is compounded by the uneven quality of writing that is being offered as a sampler, a ‘tasting menu’ as it were, of greater delights in store. It is almost as though the editor is in a hurry to put in as many stories as a publisher demands, and the publisher’s demands are, more often than not, governed by that dreaded ‘c’ word: Costing. In effect, what we get is a hastily cobbled-together collection that is neither representative nor uniform. It is – usually -- random, indiscriminate and patchy, a mélange of the good, bad, indifferent put together between the covers of one book with one eye on political correctness and the other on cost-effective publishing. There is rarely a clearly identifiable theme or common thread that can serve to effectively bind the diverse voices in even those collections that purport to offer a theme of sorts in their sub-title.

Having said that, only a handful of the burgeoning numbers of collections of short stories, especially from the bhasha literatures, ever fail my personal litmus test. Having also read and reviewed scores of such selections -- and God help me, edited the occasional ‘sampler’ myself – as long as I chance upon something that opens a window into a world that is new and familiar, that has the power to delight and amaze, I feel the business of anthologizing might be done to death but cannot be done away with. It is for this reason that Bodymaps: Stories by South Asian Women edited by Radha Chakravarty too passes, but with some reservations.

Of the 15 stories included here, nine have been reprinted. [Ambai’s ‘Once Again’ from A Purple Sea edited by Lakshmi Holmstrom; ‘Abyss’ by Asha Kardaley, from the Katha Prize Stories, Vol 10; ‘The Bell’ by Bhuwan Dhungana from Nepal Times; ‘The man who Became a Bear’ by Easterine Eralu from her own The Windhover Collection; ‘The Sandal Trees’ by Kamala Das from The Sandal Trees and Other Stories; ‘Fire’ by Kathleen Jayawardane from Women Writing: 25 Short Stories; ‘Sindhubala’ by Mahasweta  Devi from In the Name of the Mother;  and ‘Unfaithful Servants’ by Manjula Padmanabhan from the Namaste Book of Indian Short Stories, Vol.2.] This, in itself, is a dead giveaway and illustrates my point about predictability. It isn’t just the selection of writers, but the choice of stories too that deserves some hard work. Why fall back on what is available? Also, why must all such collections of stories by women writers assume that their stories will be read only by women readers. For, frankly, I cannot imagine a male reader ploughing through this book from cover to cover! The assumption that a collection of stories by South Asian women must be of over-powering interest to women alone is, to my mind, as absurd as assuming that Dalit writing is of interest, or should be of interest, only to Dalit readers, or Black writing to Black readers. It is time editors and publishers freed anthologies of these self-limiting traps.

Having said that, a book such as this can go a long way in meeting the needs and interests of a wide variety of readers: of those engaged in women’s studies, students of literature in South Asia, as well as people from the South Asian diaspora who still look upon the bhasha literatures from their part of the world as being a part and parcel of their cultural heritage but use English as an effective first language. It would, of course, be a bonus if those who know little or nothing of the literatures from this part of the world can still find in this book a starting point. Given the enormous potential that selections of regional writings offer, it is a pity that editors and publishers fritter away such opportunities.

In the Introduction, Radha Chakravarty puts forward her reasons for putting together these stories as follows:
‘This collection of short stories attempts to explore the ways in which women writers of South Asia inscribe the body in their fiction. Traditionally, the body is perceived as a biological entity but it may also be regarded as a cultural construct marked by social processes. In literature as in other modes of representation the body functions as a figurative space where different discourses intersect and sometimes collide. Women in particular experience these discursive conflicts through their bodies, in a world that tends to equate femininity with the reproductive function. But often, in the writings of women, it is the body that also enables resistance and self-empowerment.’

She goes on to say:

‘The stories in this anthology present a range of ways in which women writers of South Asia have remapped the female body as a site for oppression as well as resistance. The body in the stories functions as a constitutive rather than merely thematic element in representations of gendered identities. It connects the traditional “female” areas of experience such as marriage, motherhood, family dynamics, women’s education and work, with broader issues of class, caste, sexuality, political citizenship, cultural practices, religion and social responsibility.’

So far so good. But I have reservations when women writers, thinkers, activists begin too see and project a woman’s body as a ‘social and cultural text’… providing (sic) ‘a rich site for creative experimentation’ as the blurb on the back cover proclaims. It also goes on to say: ‘Identity, history, myth, scientific experiment, social hierarchies, sexuality, nationalism, violence, ethics, and ecology are interwoven issues for which the body in these stories becomes a powerful signifier. Together, these bodymaps chart a subversive female geography that startles with its boldly inclusive vision.’ I have a simple question for writers of such hyperbole: What would they make of other writers using, let’s say the male body, as ‘sites’ for similar ‘creative experimentation’?

The stories themselves, unmindful of the machinations of feminist cartographers, make several interesting observations on notions of modernity, femininity and sexuality itself. Some take up issues that are considered taboo even by women writers themselves. In ‘Achilles Tang’, Zaheda Hina uses the analogy of a big fish-small fish in an aquarium to spin a startling story of sodomy and the suicide of a young girl brought up in a traditional, sheltered society. In Kamala Das’ ‘The Sandal Trees’ same-sex love casts a long shadow over a fruitless barren marriage. Altered sexuality is the subject of Asha Kardaley’s ‘The Abyss’ when Sudha becomes Sudhakar but cannot entirely get rid of the woman inside him. Then there is Ismat Chughtai, the enfant terrible of Urdu writers, writing about a mad, hysterical, childless woman’s overpowering desire to carry a child in her womb in ‘The Flower Vase’. Taking the mind-body debate to its furthest extreme, Chughtai’s protagonist asks why a flower vase cannot become the receptacle of artificial insemination just because scientists have as yet not discovered the secret that she alone knows. Insane, illogical, unscientific one might say but childless Begum believes that baby she rocks in her arms ‘crawled out of the vase into my arms only the other day’ and ‘If he is born out of my vase … then he is mine, isn’t he…’

In the end, it is the stories that soar intact, unharmed by the twin dangers of translation and ideological location, refusing to be marred or bogged down by political discourse that leave their mark.                                

Bodymaps: Stories by South Asian Women, edited by Radha Chakravarty, Zuban, an Imprint of Kali for Women, 2007, pp 186, Rs 295.

-- Rakhshanda Jalil


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