FABLES ARE the first stories many children hear — tales of talking animals that optimistically hope to make right and wrong appear as simple as the simplest aphorism.
Can they change the way children think? “Can stories change anything? I am not sure.” The voice of scepticism belongs to poet and rewriter of fables, Suniti Namjoshi. It is a cloudy Bengaluru afternoon, and the UK-based writer is in the country on a private visit.
Namjoshi is a fabulist with a difference; her brilliant, playful and subversive work is impossible to stuff inside a box of didacticism. Her first book, Feminist Fables (1981), prised apart old fables and myths and turned them into sharp, jewel-like stories, which glinted with a wicked wit and mocked the absurdities of an unequal world. A woman prays to Lord Vishnu and asks for a boon: “I want human status.” “The god hedged and appointed a commission,” Namjoshi writes. We meet that princess too, who is so much the real deal that she can feel a small green pea while lying on top of seven thick mattresses. But the poor, delicate woman catches a cold and dies. Namjoshi’s fables have the zing of rage that has metamorphosed into delight. “I would be very unhappy with a fable that made an extremely good point, but which was not beautiful,” she says.
Not too many Indian readers were familiar with the work of the queer feminist until Zubaan did us a favour and published The Fabulous Feminist: A Suniti Namjoshi Reader (2012), which curates her work from the 1980s, spanning erotica and poetry, fables and speculative fiction.
When Namjoshi, 77, has had “to understand something”, she found it best to write a fable about it. But she seems to have arrived at a place of doubt. It is, she believes, a time of fragility for the fabulist project, a theme she explores in her new book, Foxy Aesop (Zubaan), a retelling of the life of Aesop. Sprite, a fabulist from this cursed time, when the planet has been wrecked and humans complicit and in denial, jumps into 6th century BC Greece to meet her hero, Aesop. In the book, Aesop, “as black as a crow, and as sly as a fox”, is no wise, revered sage, but a slave who works hard to keep his master happy. He chops wood, heats water, sweeps the courtyard and tells stories — all in the hope of gaining his liberty and, on particularly miserable days, in the hope of being spared a thrashing. “Those who are powerless should be cautious…Is that all his morals amount to?” wonders Sprite.
“It has always bothered me that Aesop’s fables didn’t have very elevated morals. And now, when things are a mess all around, when there is global warming, when the bosses of the world say all sorts of dreadful things, the question arises: what is the duty of the writer? How much can a writer do?” says Namjoshi.
She was a child growing up in Phaltan, Maharashtra, in a liberal Hindu family, when she first read a copy of Aesop’s Fables. “I was sick and in bed. There was a copy lying around, and not much else. I was a bookworm, I read absolutely everything,” she says. Namjoshi was not a particularly angry child, even if she learnt to question early on. “There were two things that helped me. One was knowing two languages (Marathi and English) and two cultures… Then you always have a standard of comparison. It helps you to question because two different sets of ideas are coming at you, both pretending to be authoritative,” she says. The other was her education at Rishi Valley School in Andhra Pradesh and the influence of its founder J Krishnamurti.
He would tell us, ‘Don’t believe everything I say. Question everything. Question your own conditioning’”, she recalls. Despite that, it took years for her to be politicised.
In an essay written in 1973, poet Adrienne Rich describes the exhilaration of finding a feminist lens. “Revision — the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction — is for us … an act of survival,” she writes. Five years after that essay, and almost a decade after Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics (1970) was published, Namjoshi was in Cambridge, England on a sabbatical from the IAS. She had embarked on a PhD on Ezra Pound, because she wished to learn the craft of this “most musical of poets”. There, she began her own discovery of feminism. “I felt a sense of relief. ‘I am not mad, other people think and question the same things I do.’ By then feminism was a body of thought. It was very strengthening,” she says. Rich’s work, especially, showed her “that it was possible to write brilliantly without being accused of being a polemicist.”
In the essay, Rich goes on to write that feminists “need to know (the past) differently than we have ever known it; not to pass on a tradition but to break its hold over us.” It’s an apt description of what Namjoshi pulls off in her work, not a simple inversion of hierarchy but an exploration of other worlds. In ‘A Moral Tale’, we meet the Beast and not the Beauty. “The Beast wasn’t a nobleman. The Beast was a woman. That’s why its love for Beauty was so monstrous,” writes the author in a moving, tragic tale about lesbian love. In ‘A Female Swan’, a duckling who wants to be a swan learns all that is to know about them: their history and literature, customs and beliefs. So much so that she is made an Honorary Swan. Not quite a happy ending: the swans jeer at her for being a wannabe, the ducks say she has betrayed them. They approach Hans Christian Andersen for a final word. “The thing is you are beginning to question the nature of ducks and the values of swans…You are learning to fashion your own fables,” he says.
The sabbatical ended, but Namjoshi did not come back to India or a career in the IAS. She went on to teach and write, and now lives with her partner in Devon, England. She says she once believed it was not possible to write in English in India, because it would never be as good as its native languages: (“Clearly, I was wrong”). “As a woman, you have to struggle with language because you are writing in a male-dominated tradition. As an Indian, you have to struggle because the language you are using has developed from a different experience. But writers need to struggle, otherwise they end up with dead work,” she says.
Though feminism awakened her to new possibilities, she was no fighter. “The great temptation for me was to hide behind a book and take refuge in pure poetry,” she says. Namjoshi recalls also the pain of watching the ideology die. “It died in the universities, when the women’s studies courses folded. It died because they thought the battle was won,” she says. Namjoshi has watched the upheaval in feminist discourse with caution. “A part of me feels very glad that women and girls or young boys who have been abused are able to say: ‘Me too.’ It exposes what should be exposed and in a context in which those who are being named are not the victims, but the perpetrators. What’s wrong with it is that anyone can accuse anyone,” she says.
It is uncanny, then, to find a Namjoshi fable that speaks of the betrayal that #MeToo underlines. A monkey, who lived along the banks of the Yamuna, sets off to see the world. Her friends were crocodiles. They warned her of beasts along the way. “They are long and narrow with scaly hides and powerful jaws…” She returns seven years later, blinded in one eye, six of her teeth lost and her tail cut off. “When you warned me of the beasts,” she asks, “did you know they looked like you?” Yes, said her friends and avoided her eye.
What then is the power of stories? What stories does one leave behind for the next generation? “It’s difficult, isn’t it to know what to say to children?” says Namjoshi, as she thinks of Alice, the one-year-old grandchild of her partner who they both dote on. “We can’t say, ‘Beware of all men, the world is full of wicked people.’ It would not help. In the end, we say the obvious: children need love. What else can we give anyone that matters more?”