Moving beyond words | Daily News
South Asian Women’s Literature:

Moving beyond words

Literature, just like art, music and dance, through link languages and translations, offers one of the best ways to understand, accept and live with each other, in harmony. However, to achieve this harmony the literature has to be shared with all the people, across all physical and man-made barriers. Before going out to embrace the whole world, though, we could make a start in South Asia with South Asian literature. Since women dominate the literary scene today, as it had always been, we could first talk about women writers.

In the past no one would have bothered about the gender of the writer. Yet unfortunately, society had compelled some female writers to hide their gender and use a male pseudonym, while today it is imposed by the publishers. Joanne Rawlings is the most recent. Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) and P.D James (Phyllis Dorothy James) are other examples.

The earliest women writers in South Asia would have been the Bhikkhunis who created the Therigatha. There could have been many women who created literature, from pre-historic times if we accept the ancient cave-art also as literature. Since it was women who lived in the caves with the children, they would have done the paintings, not the men who had been roaming out of doors.

Unfortunately, we do not have an opportunity to read the writings from our neighbours. We do not have any organisation today to introduce the writers and their books among all South Asian readers. I had the good fortune to meet many of these contemporary writers, and through them learn about the early writers, during literary festivals in other South Asian countries. But unfortunately none of the universities or literary organisations in Sri Lanka have made any effort to host a literary festival where our readers and writers could meet the writers from our neighbouring countries. I can only introduce a few of the great South Asian women writers here, and hope to kindle the interest of our readers to seek out all the writers. India is not only Arundahti Roy and Bangladesh is not only Taslima Nasreen.

Muslim women issues

Pratibha Ray is an Indian writer who writes in Oriya and several of her novels have been translated into English. Her search is for a “social order based on equality, love, peace and integration”. Her daughter Adyasha Das is a poet and short story writer. Noor Zaheer is a social activist, writer and poet, bold enough to write two novels ‘My God is a Woman’, and ‘Denied by Allah’. She has focused on the struggle of the Muslim women pertaining to their social, economic, political and legal rights. Sarjinee Sahoo is another great writer who fights for women’s rights. Fortunately for Sri Lankan readers two of Sahoo’s novels, ‘The Dark Abode’ and ‘Goddess in Exile’ have been translated into Sinhala by Sisil Rodrigo. Kashmir born Urdu writer Taranum Riyaz has over 12 books of fiction and poetry. In India we find so many great women writers, writing in their mother tongue or in English.

In India we also have women writers from the suppressed and oppressed classes, called the Untouchables. Bama Faustina Soosairaj and Meena Kandasami are very courageous writers exposing the inhuman suffering among these Scheduled Castes.

There is a wonderful novel written in Bangla by Selina Hossain, about Rabindranath’s early days on a houseboat on the River Padma. For our good fortune it has been translated into English as ‘The Painted Palette’. Another novel by the author Selina Hossain, ‘The Charcoal Portrait’, has also been translated into English. It is about the ever suffering workers in the tea plantations, which should be interesting reading for us too. There are only two novels, to my knowledge about our own tea estate workers, ‘Refuge’ and ‘Somewhere In the Green Hills’. Also from Bangladesh is Niaz Zaman who won the Asiaweek award for ‘The Dance’. Jahrna Rahman and who made her name with ‘Dawn of the Waning Moon’. We also meet Rubana Huq, the first woman president of the Bangladesh Garment Exporters’ Association and the managing director of a very large business conglomerate. She is also a poet ‘Time of My Life’, and regular columnist. This very successful businesswoman has her PhD in English literature. She organised and sponsored a South Asian literary festival in Dhaka, all on her own. We need more such literati among our business community.

Kunzang Choden is the first Bhutanese woman to write a novel in English, ‘The Circle of Karma’ and is hailed as the Grand Old Lady of Bhutanese fiction. Among the modern Bhutan writers, we also find the Queen Mother Dorji Wangmo, who wrote ‘Of Rainbows and Clouds’ and ‘Treasures of the Thunder Dragon’. Lily Wangchuk is the first woman to be elected president of a political party in Bhutan. She wrote the award winning book ‘Facts about Bhutan’ and is listed one of the Top 15 Global Women 2013. In Bhutan it has always been oral literature till recent times, which explains why there are very few writers.

In Nepal too, there was a royal writer, Queen Tripurasundari, who was a poet. She also wrote ‘Raj Dharma. Bishnu Kumari Waiba’, better known as Parijat, is well known for ‘Shiris Ko Phool’ (The Blue Mimosa). Moti Laxmi Upasika was the first woman poet and short story writer of the 20th century, ‘Chakhunchiya Sarbay’ (poetry), ‘Utpalavanna’ (Buddhist stories).

From Pakistan we meet Nayyara Rahman, well known for her short stories. Farheen Chaudhry, author of ‘Metha Sach’, is a poet, playwright, and translator. She has translated my novel, ‘The Clone’ into Urdu. Tehmina Durrani became famous with ‘My Feudal Lord’. She has penned several novels, and is also an artist and activist. Durrani won the French award of ‘The Order of Arts and Letters’.

Afghanistan women writers have their own problems, and they formed the Free Women Writers. We have Arifa Omarloor. She wrote ‘Stomana Teshta’ (Weary Escape). Khaleda Khorsand the short story writer, and Zohra Zahir, poet and short story writer. There are many others, we need to learn about.

Aminath Faiza (Daisy Maa) was a leading Divehi poet from Maldives, who won the National Award of Recognition and the National Award of Honour. Aminath Neena writes her poems in English, ‘My Country, My Maldives’.

South Asian writers’ contributions

In order to learn more about South Asian women writers we need a South Asian Literary Journal, for contributions from all South Asian writers, and even from writers in other countries posting literary reviews on South Asian writings, and for such a publication to be made available to every reader. We need more anthologies, literary reviews, conferences and online discussions about all literature published in South Asia. To enable online discussions and webinars, we need to go online with our literature, as e-books, and wherever possible by publishing them in the public domain, to be shared with all.

India and Bangladesh have established Sahitya Akademys that are a doing wonderful service for their literature, but they are limited to their own countries. There is a Comparative Literature Association of India (CLAI). I have proposed that they form it into a Comparative Literature Association of South Asia, and hope it would become a reality soon. The SAARC Cultural Centre also made a good start with the annual anthologies of short stories and poems from all the South Asian countries. They also had one International conference in Bhutan on the South Asian novel, and another in Bangalore on South Asian Poetry. That was many years ago. Since SAARC is a total failure, perhaps we could consider a South Asian Sahitya Akademy, with no political interference.

Foundation Of SAARC Writers And Literature (FOSWAL), was a brainchild of Ajeet Caur, who almost single-handedly has contributed more for promoting South Asian literature than any other individual or organization in the region. She had the courage to organize a meeting of the writers from India and Pakistan, and for the first time after the partition Pakistan writers crossed the border to attend a conference in India in 1987. Ajeet Caur organized the first conference of South Asian Writers in 2000. FOSWAL was recognized as a SAARC Apex body in 2002, they received support from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, and from the Cultural ministries in other countries. Unfortunately the support became step-motherly, after the establishment of the SAARC Cultural Center. Today FOSWAL is struggling to hold at least one annual literary festival, and they have not been able to publish their anthologies, conference papers and other South Asian writings for want of funds.

We need to use all the latest technology, to share our literary works all over the Global Village, instead of just talking about it. Let us begin with the women writers.

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