This August, we’re celebrating the power of the female voice in literature.
Literary canon has mostly been a male-dominated arena, hiding the literary genius of many women! As we progress and move towards an equal society, such initiatives bring light to the voices of those who’ve been in the dark for far too long. Very few books, for example, have been translated into English (in the first place!) and women’s voices in these translations are even more rare!
Recognising this gender disparity, Israeli scientist and blogger Meytal Radzinski started the ‘ Women In Translation Month’ initiative in 2014.
August has since been recognised as ‘WIT Month’. You will have seen a lot of people, including publishing houses, posting their recommendations with the #WITMonth hashtag online, pushing for recognition and discussion.
Here is a selection of (not exhaustive, by any means!) Indian women writers we are reading and celebrating this August!
(P.S: A hat-tip from our end to these geniuses!)
1. C.S Lakshmi (Ambai)
Unconventional and humorous with hints of realism , Ambai’s fiction is noted for it’s feminist narrative.
This often results in her being excluded from mainstream Tamil literary establishment. Ambai was the only Tamil writer to be included in the recently published collection Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature by Amit Chaudhuri. Her fiction has won her the Narayanswamy Aiyar Prize. Currently, she heads ‘The Sound & Picture Archives for Research on Women’ (SPARROW) in Mumbai. Published by Speaking Tiger, her latest work to be translated into English was A Night with a Black Spider, by Aniruddhan Vasudevan.
2. Bama Faustina Soosairaj
Brave, liberating, and cathartic, Bama’s autobiographical novel Karukku is recognized as an important work of Dalit literature. The novel was translated, from Tamil, in 2000 by Lakshmi Holmstrom. The novel chronicles Bama’s life and is about the experiences of a Dalit Christian woman in Tamil Nadu. Her other notable works include Sangati (1994) and Vanmam (2002), along with two collections of short stories.
3. Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay
Conflict-driven, feminist, and uncompromising, Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s writing, in Bengali, explore female sexuality with an unconventional flair. Her works have been lauded for attracting international attention to Bengali literature.
Panty, her popular debut novel, was re-published by UK-based indie Tilted Axis Press (TAP). Her latest novel, The Yogini, translated to English by Arunava Sinha, was ranked among the 16 books that won the PEN Translate Grant. Bandyopadhyay has been named ‘India’s Elena Ferrante’, and her novel Abandon has been compared to Emma Donoghue’s Room.
4. K. R Meera
K.R. Meera is an award-winning Malayalam writer and journalist. She has written novels, essays, and short stories. She won the Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award for the novel Aarachar (Hangwoman). Meera has been honoured with several literary awards and was also shortlisted for the 2016 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. Meera’s latest translated novella The Unseeing Idol of Light, was published in 2018, garnering both critical and popular acclaim. IAS officer and celebrated writer Ministhy S translated K.R. Meera's The Poison of Love in 2017.
Bold, modernist, and a trend setter, Qurratulain Hyder’s Aag Ka Darya (River of Fire) came out at a time when ‘novel’ was not a defined genre in the poetry-driven Urdu literary world. River of Fire was translated by the author herself, published by Kali for Women. Her magnum opus follows major historical moments between fourth century BC to post-Independence India and Pakistan.
Her writing style has been compared to the likes of Gabriel García Márquez and Milan Kundera. Hyder has won multiple awards and accolades, including the Sahitya Akademi Award, Ghalib Award, Jnanpith Award, and was conferred the Padma Shri by the Government of India. Other prominent works include Aakhir-e-Shab ke Hamsafar (Travellers Unto the Night), Mere Bhi Sanamkhane (My Temples, Too), Patjhar ki Awaaz ( The Sound of Falling Leaves), and The Street Singers of Lucknow, and Other Stories.
6. Amrita Pritam
Known for having written poems and novels which challenged stereotypes and were politically charged, Amrita Pritam is celebrated as an eminent 20th Century Punjabi writer. She has over a hundred literary works to her credit. Pinjar, one of Pritam’s most popular novels, was turned into an award-winning movie of the same name. Her fiction has won her numerous honours, awards, and accolades; including the Sahitya Akademi award, Padma Vibhushan and Bharatiya Jnanpith. Her poignant poem, Ajj Aakhaan Waris Shah nu (Today I invoke Waris Shah – "Ode to Waris Shah") is still remembered for the pain and anguish that the poet expresses over India’s partition. Khushwant Singh’s English translation of Pritam’s Pinjar is still widely circulated, keeping her words alive for eternity.
7. Ismat Chugtai
A leading figure of Urdu literature, Ismat Chugtai, is remembered for her brave and unconventional words. Her work explores class conflicts, female sexuality, middle class morality, and patriarchal tropes.
Lihaaf ( The Quilt), one of Chugtai’s most cherished writings, sparked controversy for the story’s portrayal of homosexuality. The Quilt was translated to English by Syeda Hameed and Tahira Naqvir. Later, charges of obscenity were also levelled against Chugtai. Her notable works include short stories like Kalyan, Ek Baat, Choten, among others. Her novel Tedhi Lakeer (The Crooked Line) is considered one of the most esteemed works of Urdu literature.
8. Mahasweta Devi
Social activist and the voice of the marginalized, Mahasweta Devi is a prominent Bengali writer whose fiction is remembered for its social commentary. Her fiction chronicled the lives of India’s tribal communities and nomads, among others . In 1997, she earned the Ramon Magsaysay Award for her writing and activism on behalf of tribal communities. Devi’s short story Draupadi was translated into English by celebrated literary scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
August may end soon, but the reading list is not anywhere near over!
There are many female Indian writers whose translated works are still worth mentioning. Though hashtags such as #WITMonth may go out of trend, these literary geniuses should be celebrated year-long!
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