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A limited liberation

By Madhumita Bose

Activist and social critic Vinodinee Neelkanth, like most other women writers of the early-20th century, favoured the empowerment of women, as long as they left undisturbed their roles as wife and mother. It was left to the male writers of the ’20s and ’30s to create vibrant, non-conformist female characters

The Road Less Travelled: The Life and Writings of Vinodinee Neelkanth. Biographical Sketch by Aparna Basu and Shailaja Kalelkar Parikh and Translated Works, Stree, March 2009, pp 320, price Rs 375   

Robert Frost in his poem ‘The Road Not Taken,’ speculates at the end about what it might have been like had he taken the road other than the one he did, believing it to be the one less travelled. As the poem’s narrator stands where the road forks, he realises, on careful examination, that both roads have been worn about the same. After living out his choice, in his later years he fancifully wishes he could have taken both.

Vinodinee Neelkanth, writer, activist and social critic (1907-1987) might be said to have had the privilege of taking both roads. Born into one of Gujarat’s elite, privileged families – to Sir Ramanbhai Neelkanth and Lady Vidyagauri -- Vinodinee had the advantage of an upper-class western education, liberal background and access to prominent activists and politicians including M K Gandhi. As was natural, she involved herself with the political issues of her time (accompanying Gandhi on the long Dandi March); and more importantly, with the pressing social issues, including dowry and the discrimination of the girl-child. This is reflected in her writings, bare and simple in style, her journalistic essays and short stories, parables for the ordinary woman confined by religious and family traditions in a stereotyped existence.

Biographers Shailaja Kalelkar Parikh and Aparna Basu, daughters-in-law and niece respectively to Vinodinee, could have chosen a different title over this overused one. Indian women writers of the early-20th century generated considerable interest (and still do). The freedom movement was gaining momentum in the 1920s and 1930s, national sentiments were on the boil and provided a natural backdrop to emerging Indian novelists and writers.

For women writers at the turn of the 20th century, emancipation was still a novel idea and despite the opening up of education for girls, their response to the idea of a wider freedom, apart from the nationalist one, was still wary.

Cambridge-educated Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949), a pioneer in women’s writing in India, claimed by the British as an inspiring product of their Empire and an example of what women’s education could produce, was a public figure as president of the Indian National Congress and the first governor of Uttar Pradesh, and equally well-known for her lyrical poetry. Her themes of love and hope revolved around nature and its beauty and were appreciated internationally.

Then there was Swarna Kumari Devi, Rabindranath Tagore’s sister, whose The Fatal Garland and An Unfinished Song were translated in English around 1915. The Morning Post, describing her as ‘the most famous advanced woman of our Indian Empire’, had this to say: ‘We are told that though Mrs Ghosal (Swarna Kumari Devi) has done so much for the emancipation of her sex, she still keeps “purdah” among her old-fashioned relatives; and this is just what we should expect from the tone of her work. An Unfinished Song breathes the spirit of humility and retirement. Its charming heroine is in every essential a true woman of the East. She accepts the inevitable; she approaches God through man. Her one idea in life is the happiness of love whether towards parent or friend, or husband.’

Vinodinee, when she started writing in 1928, had a more realistic picture of society than the idealistic one that the earlier generation of women writers adopted. Down-to-earth and precise -- possibly because of her degree from the University of Michigan where she went on scholarship and received her MA in sociology and child psychology -- her women conjure up their inner strength and resources in family crises when they have to take over as breadwinners of the family; questioning expensive rituals, the dowry system or widow remarriage (‘Mudra Puts The Train Back On Track’, ‘From Beggar To Business Woman’, ‘As Good As A Son’).

Her didactic writings appear to be confined to social issues that remain as pertinent half-a-century later: female infanticide, dowry, trafficking and the plight of a huge section of rural women who have to put in gruelling hours earning their bread and running a home. But, and it must be said, her writings are a viewpoint, telling things as they should be, and not as they are or were. At the time she was writing, there were stronger, more feminist views being expressed, which she could not have been unaware of. Vinodinee’s biographers, who view her from a family perspective, point out, as do her writings, that she believed in empowerment for women but was not a feminist. This was a position adopted by most women writers of the day and echoed by Ashapoorna Devi (1909-1995), whose seminal body of literary writing reflects a society moving away from rigid orthodoxy. By the time of Amrita Pritam whose major themes of love and communal violence found critical acclaim, women writers were more firmly entrenched. Mahashweta Devi (born 1926), a literary activist best known for her championing of tribal causes, is considered a writer in the running for a Booker Prize or a Nobel. It is the later writers, Kamla Das, or more recently Taslima Nasreen, who present the overtly feminist voice.  

The reluctance of empowered and emancipated women, especially Indian women, to identify themselves as feminists, has a deeper significance in the context of the social and religious traditions they were brought up in. Feminism was seen as a western concept. Considering that we still hear about the Hindu way of life as opposed to the ‘western way of life’, with Sangh Parivar followers laying down what behaviour is permissible or not permissible in Indian women, 50 years ago the cultural traditions must have been overwhelming, and women writers or women public figures were anxious not to be seen to be making a break from their cultural roots and traditions. It was left to male writers of the ’20s and ’30s, notably Tagore, to look at the issues concerning child marriage or girl widows, producing vibrant and unforgettable heroines whether idealistic Sucharita (Gora), scheming Binodini (Choker Bali) who is aware of her femininity and sexual desires and does something about realising them, or a mature Bimala (Ghare Baire) who is brought out of purdah by her husband and promptly has an affair with his friend. Sarat Chandra’s heroines, Lalita (Parineeta), Parbati (Debdas) are relevant, better still, marketable, even a century after his death, because of their non-conformity and timeless qualities.

Feminist writing isn’t new to India. In the Ancient and Middle ages courtesans were women outside the pale of the average woman whose lot was the husband and home. Courtesans were highly literate, talented and accomplished poets and composers in their own right, and enjoyed a degree of liberty the average woman whose lot was the husband and home, could never aspire to. Women who chose to live within the Buddhist fold composed poems celebrating their freedom from domestic drudgery. ‘Freedom from mortar, pestle and the twisted lord,’ wrote a Buddhist nun more than 2,000 years ago.

Emancipation and empowerment bring with them sexual freedoms and power play, a forthrightness which a traditional mindset finds distinctly uncomfortable, especially the Indian mindset which in a crisis believes in a cover-up rather than a confrontation.

Take for example one of the short stories in this book, ‘The Noble Heart’. A recurring theme in Vinodinee’s writings is that women, no matter how empowered, have to function within their roles of mother and wife, and have to make themselves attractive and accommodating to their husbands if their husbands are not to stray, or worse, rape their daughters-in-law, as the story shows. To the woman of today, it would seem appalling that instead of kicking her husband out, this middle-aged woman deals with the situation by taking on her daughter-in-law’s pregnancy as her own, giving the baby publicly to her daughter-in-law with the excuse that she was too old to care for it.

Vinodinee’s homilies of the woman who wisely tackles family crises, earns money if required, supports a father who has been unsupportive to her, or similarly a husband; makes herself attractive to her husband while at the same time being the perfect wife and mother, is the dream which lies at the root of modern India. And, judging by the  increasing divorce statistics, not so much in the upper classes, but among the less privileged, middle class and lower middle class homes, is a dream souring fast because of the unrealities which underpin it. It isn’t enough for the woman to be emancipated, the man must be too. Vinodinee would have been 80 when she passed away in 1987, but by then Indian women were already beginning to assert themselves, homes were no longer a priority, and laws were slowly changing in favour of women’s rights. How would any educated woman of Vinodinee’s times reconcile herself to such sweeping changes?

(Madhumita Bose is a Kolkata-based freelance writer with 25 years of journalistic experience) 

InfoChange News & Features, September 2009