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The solitary women of Indian literature

In Indian novels, the solitary woman is still an art in evolution. Yet, her recurring presence suggests an increasing engagement with the interiority that women have, for long, been denied in life and literature.

Where do the absent women of literature go? One answer could be that they eventually move into their solitude.

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1996) ends with a thought echoing in Ammu during her first sexual encounter with Velutha: “Yes, Margaret, she thought. We do it to each other too.”

Why does Ammu remember Margaret, her brother’s wife, with a sense of jealous triumph in her moments of intimacy? Was it really the desire to challenge the “laws that lay down who should be loved, and how,” as the novel repeatedly asserts? Or was it Ammu’s revenge against Chacko and his wife? A single mother incensed by the attention given to the new woman in the family lets the hurt fester in her. It culminates in her spontaneous decision to choose a Dalit man, who lived in the vicinity, but with whom she has never had any prior bonding, as her sexual partner. Was it just a sexual hurt that was to be avenged by “a woman that they had already damned, now had little left to lose, and could therefore be dangerous”? Does her act make for a fairly conventional rebellion in which an indignant woman embraces a man subordinate to her in social hierarchy? Could she have fulfilled herself in any other way? Roy’s novel doesn’t seem to offer any other choice to the intensely lonely woman. Ammu is not alone. She has many illustrious companions in Indian novels.

If the status of women is an apt reflection of society, and if the novel is the most representative form of modern literature and society, then it can be safely deduced that the space women have received in Indian novels can be a useful mirror to the India of the last 150 years.

A woman’s freedom to choose — and choose her solitude — are among the most important attributes of contemporary society. Solitude is not isolation, or a rejection of social relations, it’s not individualism, loneliness and certainly not an exilic state. It is a form of existence in which an individual voluntarily carves a personal space to follow an inner quest. For a major part of history, except, perhaps, for exceptions such as Mirabai and Akka Mahadevi, solitude was mostly the men’s prerogative that often came at the cost of women. Gautam Buddha chose solitude, leaving his wife Yashodhara to embrace a forced loneliness and familial responsibilities. Modernity, perhaps for the first time, facilitated a woman to choose her solitude, or what Virginia Woolf called “a room of her own”. Yet, this room was never easily available in life, or in literature.

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European novels that featured solitary male protagonists appeared right from the beginning, in the early 18th century, with figures such as Robinson Crusoe and Don Quixote, but solitary women appeared much later, and were far too few. Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina were essentially lonely women, who, despite all the artistic merits of the novels they were placed in, were seeking just love.

In 2013, American writer Kelsey Mckinney noted: “Of the 100 best novels compiled by Modern Library… in only one of those books —The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) by Muriel Spark — do the leading women strive to do more than find a husband or raise their children…They wanted, it seemed, to be supporting actresses in their own stories… Literary girls don’t take road-trips to find themselves; they take trips to find men,” she writes.

In Indian novels, too, a variety of eponymous women protagonists have existed since its inception, women who have been fairly independent, but for whom solitude was rarely an existential requirement. Their independent voice, when it first appeared in iconic works such as Chokher Bali (1903, Rabindranath Tagore), was mostly centred on libidinal themes. Freedom to choose love and sex are certainly significant freedoms for a woman but contrast this with male characters whose quest took them to horizons beyond romance and the difference is stark not just in the arc followed by the lead characters but also in the way they were received. Shekhar: Ek Jivani (1940,1944, Ajneya) and Mitro Marjani (1966, Krishna Sobti) are two pathbreaking novels — Shekhar created by a man, Mitro by a woman. Shekhar is in love but he is also exploring the many wonders of life, whereas Mitro is remembered mostly for her bold assertions. Similarly, Kamala Das’s My Story (1973), an autobiography that can be read as a novel, is characterised as a woman’s longing for love, and exploration of her sexual self.

Does the sight of a solitary woman on an odyssey, inner or exterior, cause unease in writers? Since an odyssey takes the person beyond the control of family and society, not many writers were, perhaps, willing to offer her such a journey. It also shows up the society that views a solitary woman with suspicion. It’s a cruel irony that both cinema and the novel, two primary forms of artistic production in contemporary times, have quickly lent her sexual liberty but not other freedoms.

Yet, Indian novels have played a major role in carving out a solitary space for women. After the emergence of the form, many of the early novels (such as Rani Ketaki Ki Kahani in Hindi, 1801, Yamuna Paryatan in Marathi, 1857; Rajmohan’s Wife in English, 1860s; Durgeshnandini in Bengali, 1865; Saraswastichandra in Gujarati, 1887-1900; Indulekha in Malayalam, 1889; Umrao Jan Ada in Urdu, 1899; Monomoti in Assamese, 1900) in various Indian languages have had women at their centre. Even Kadambari (Banabhatta, 7th Century AD), arguably the first novel of India, is named after a woman. Ever since the late 19th century, the novel, which questioned and subverted existing social norms, had gained such notoriety that it was viewed with suspicion for its ability to corrupt readers, especially young women. If the novels of subversive romance she read rattled the family, the act of reading was no less inflammatory. One could recite the Ramcharitmanas or Satyanarayan Katha in a group, but reading a novel was a solitary act. The mere image of a woman sitting in a corner, engrossed in a novel, would leave her family uneasy.

Historians like Partha Chatterjee have underlined the bond between Indian women and the novel in the late 19th and early 20th century. Writers of that era also captured the solitary conversations of women with the genre. The protagonist of Indulekha put the elderly members of the traditional Nair family at considerable unease because she read novels instead of epics. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Anupamar Prem (written circa 1900) opens with a sentence that can rank among the greatest in fiction: “By the age of 11, Anupama had thoroughly spoilt her mind by reading novels.” A character, Hemangini, in Rabindranath Tagore’s elder brother Jyotirindranath Tagore’s play Aleekbabu (1900) declares to her assistant: “The novel… has more words of wisdom than any other. Previously, I would love reading the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, but after laying my hand on the novel, I don’t feel like touching these…How would people of yore know what love was? The novel did not exist then.”

Perhaps, for the first time, India had encountered a literary form in which protagonists could explore the boundaries of their curiosity. Characters in epics and religious texts — from Arjuna to Gargi to Nachiketa — display profound inquisitiveness but their questions are resolved in the narrative. Arjuna is fulfilled by Krishna’s explanations in Bhagvad Gita. So is Gargi by Yajnavalkaya’s response in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. But, in novels, female protagonists often received no answers. Binodini and Kumudini (Saraswatichandra) left the narrative in the end, but their exit remains unexplained.

Yet, for all the liberation it brought in, the novel often did not lend its women protagonists greater independence. If anything, it restricted her choices and made her a background note to enable the male protagonist to resolve his crisis. One finds such tendencies even in iconic works like Gora (1909, Rabindranath Tagore) and Samskara (1965, UR Ananthamurthy). The portrayal of women in these novels is both sensitive and problematic. The women protagonists of Gora and Samskara, Sucharita and Chandri, respectively, come across as independent beings, but their actions seem to be aimed at facilitating the evolution of the male characters. Both men, Gora and Praneshacharya, undergo transformations following their contact with the women. Sucharita gets somewhat influenced by Gora but Chandri remains unruffled, despite her own tumultuous journey. If Chandri were to write her account, would she raise difficult questions about her abrupt exit?

Where do the absent women of literature go? One answer could be that they eventually move into their solitude. If one were to imagine the emotional and psychological state of women who were left untold by their narrators, whose tales remained undeveloped, whose questions unasked and, hence, unanswered, perhaps, it would be easier to imagine their predisposition for solitude.

Five decades after Anupama, another novelist made a girl of the same age his central character. Kaya in Lal Teen Ki Chhat (1974, Nirmal Verma) embraced solitude as the essential aspect of her being. Kaya lives in Shimla with her pregnant mother and a younger brother. She has very little conversation with her mother. She spends her days wandering through the mountainous forests, chasing apparitions of the past, trailing the rail tracks that go to Kalka. In a rare instance in Indian literature, one hears the unalloyed silence and rumination of a girl who has not yet reached puberty in the novel. “Kaya did not fear the loneliness; she was just a little mystified…out of sight of people — of Chhote, of Mother, of Mrs Joshua. She was growing up unnoticed.”

In Ek Chithda Sukh (1979), Verma traces the lives of Bitty, her lover Darry, Ira and her lover Nittibhai. It also explores the profound and poignant solitude of Bitty and Ira despite being in love. Bitty and Darry meet regularly, but he has no access to a part of her inner space. Their moments of togetherness are interspersed by her need to keep a space reserved, inviolable. The yearning for solitude that was rarely available to women in preceding centuries comes to fulfill itself in Verma’s novels.

One can contrast Ammu with Ira, who is in love with an older, married man, Nittibhai. Both the women carry out a romance that lacks social sanction. Ammu is incensed by Margaret; Ira is filled with immense guilt when she sees Nittibhai’s wife. There is a fundamental difference between the ways the two novels negotiate the hurt that comes with love. Verma’s women break rules — Bitty and Ira defy their families, leave home to pursue their dreams, but they are introspective and critical of their choices. They judge themselves by their own yardsticks of morality.

The few works discussed here cannot represent the corpus of Indian novels and their women characters. Yet, these novels, spanning over a century, are some of the most representative works of modern Indian fiction. Binodini, Sucharita, Mitro, Chandri and Ammu have many more women to give them company both in the novel and outside of it.

There is another possibility. The solitary woman is a relatively new occurrence in history, and in the novel. Even iconic women writers seem to have limited options for their female characters. One can, in retrospect, clothe these characters with various possibilities, delineate uncharted paths for them, but such retroactive inflation, as much as it makes them appear more accomplished and consummated, might not always be faithful to their coordinates both in the novel and in history. It was, perhaps, inevitable for these women to live what may appear to be incomplete lives. Their aesthetics is a matrix of imperfections, their quest a reflection of the unfinished, whose sole purpose is to push the future into introspection. The solitary woman is still an art in evolution.

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Ashutosh Bhardwaj is a Fellow at the IIAS, Shimla. He is writing a book on the solitude of women in Indian novels.