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The Colour of Women in Ethnic Literature

madhura banerjee blog
Jan 2016

The Colour of Women in Ethnic Literature

madhura banerjee blog

Post: Madhura Banerjee | Illustration: Reya Ahmed ( Saintbrush )


It has been a while since I have been interested in exploring through literature, Manhattan’s conjoined twin of a different complexion named Harlem. It was just another day at a bookstore, when I picked up a book of Maya Angelou’s, and found a full, vital voice leaping out from the very first few pages.  The book was called “Heart of a Woman”. The voice had the flexibility to be deeply informative, stirringly mellow and radically sardonic about life and times in Harlem.

Then came an addiction, in the name of Toni Morrison. Even after a stressful day, she kept me sitting up till late at night, making me throw myself into the overwhelming narrators she created. It was not just the reader in me that was provoked. It was the woman in me that was roused, carrying a lantern into the darkest corners of life’s experiences and accepting their existence as the inevitable cobwebs they were, and the opportunities for redecorating the ignored trenches of the mind that they were.

Of course, Literature is universal. Toni Morrison’s work is not only meant for an African-American girl’s spiritual awakening. Yet, if I were to someday aim at composing a piece of writing that contained the wholesome experience of being a young Indian woman, it would not draw inspiration from Indian writing in English.

It would be cruel, to assert that Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou do not have their mirror images in Indian literature in English. When Literature is given a nationality, the voices spoken are meant to sound different.

There is a stark difference between how women are portrayed in Indian literature – and an ever more distinct contrast in how they are portrayed in Indian writing in Bengali and the same in Indian writing in English.

What I have found is, that the voice that commands the story in the latter genre, that is, the essence of the author, is one that contains a sympathetic view of women in India. When you pick up a book that is set in a period where women were openly oppressed in society, you expect the women characters to be meek entities garlanded by the tender silk of femininity woven by the spindle of patriarchy. Seldom do you find an unusual voice making a radical leap out of the pages and conquering your mind.

The authors depicting novels set in such periods have every right to defend their ideas by saying, that their definition are spawns of reality – that they are showcasing true events loyal to a certain period of time.

Let us take modern fiction. Strong women characters take on the world in their independent ways. Imagine if one of said strong, independent women came across a realistically showcased oppressed woman from the books. The former would feel an intrigue for the latter, which would inevitably be garnished with sympathy. Suppose you read a story about how a woman from the city or abroad comes to educate women in an obscure village in India. It is the voice of that woman from the city who is writing about the women in the village. That is not how wholesomeness is achieved. To reach a point where women are not oppressed in between the covers of a book, the voice that needs to explode from the pages has to be that of the oppressed, village girl. She has the key to truth. She will shatter the shackles that are imposed by Indian writing in English as an excuse for portraying reality.

One needs a sarcastic play on the concept of minority, because not too long ago, women were the minority.

In her novel Beloved, Toni Morrison said, “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

Indian feminist literature needs less of people who are beyond the threshold, talking about what lies behind them. More voices need to erupt from behind the threshold.

In Indian writing in Bengali, however, you find the nooks and crannies of the heart of a poverty-stricken girl explored by Rabindranath Tagore in Postmaster, you find the strength that surges beneath the domestic veil of a young married woman in Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Nishkriti.

Perhaps it is hard to polish an entity carbonated by society, but the idea of a could-be, the hope, the possibility can do wonders for Literature.

Be it an African-American woman or an Indian woman – it makes it riveting to think, what colour would we give to a voice that expresses its ethnicity through Literature?


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