Concern for the Destiny of the Country: Indian Feminist Novels

Elen Turner in Critical Flame:

3546874366_6a5bc5a355_oIndian literary critic Meenakshi Mukherjee has said that the essential concern of the twentieth-century Indian novelist was the changing national scene and the destiny of the country. She was referring to novels of the first half of the twentieth century, but these same concerns continue to operate today. It is only the definition of what the “destiny of the country” means that has changed over the decades. The concerns to which she refers are not confined to the Independence struggle, but increasingly turn toward problems of class and gender. Three novels—Urdu author Qurratulain Hyder’s classic My Temples, Too, English-language author Shruti Saxena’s Stilettos in the Boardroom, and Tamil author Vaasanthi’s Birthright; all published by India’s two leading feminist presses, Zubaan and Women Unlimited—highlight the changing nature of national destiny. Though these novels differ in both style and content, their central characters face renegotiations of youth, class, and gender, in the shadow of post-Independence national identity. These works not only reveal the shifting ground of Mukherjee’s concern, but also demonstrate that there is no such thing as a representative Indian feminist novel. In these titles, diversity is privileged above adherence to ideology. Each one expresses a different India—newly independent, ruling class, revolutionary, Muslim; urban, globalising, corporate; rural, educated, tradition-bound—all with women’s experiences at their center.

Qurratulain Hyder (1928-2007) wrote Mere Bhi Sanamkhane in 1947 at age nineteen. She was unusual in translating (or “transcreating,” the term she preferred,) many of her novels herself: Mere Bhi Sanamkhane was transcreated as My Temples, Too. The novel is set in Lucknow, long a cosmopolitan center with a combination of Muslim and Hindu inhabitants, in the lead-up to and aftermath of Indian Independence. Founded in 1775 when the Muslim nawabs of Avadh shifted court there, Lucknow had a large and well-educated Hindu middle-class. Though the monarchy fell to the British in 1856, the traditional feudal system that upheld high-cultural traditions (poetry, arts, and music) lasted until Independence in 1947. My Temples, Too depicts a post-Independence period of growing suspicion and animosity between religious groups, when large numbers of Punjabi refugees were entering Lucknow. Hyder’s novel documents the rapid disintegration of the city—and, by extension, India—as an ideal of Hindu-Muslim unity that would prove unattainable.

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