The post-Independence period saw a gradual rise in the number of Indian women writing in English and female writers have now started to own and acknowledge that the language is the best medium to express themselves, argues a new book.
The anthology “Influence of English on Indian Women Writers: Voices from Regional Languages” is edited by K Suneetha Rani, professor at the Centre for Women’s Studies, University of Hyderabad.
The aim of the book is to record the different ways in which women responded to the debates around English in different languages and genres. It brings into discussion Indian women’s choice of writing or not writing in English in the context of identity movements, says Rani.
English as a symbol of modernity in India was first accessed by men, giving them a new image of masculinity while Indian languages were ‘feminised’ - seen as meant for women. Among upper-caste women, English was a vehicle for social reform and for lessening seclusion, invisibility and economic dependence, the contributors argue.
For the so-called lower castes, the language was aspirational, indicating emancipation and empowerment possibilities, and threatening upper-caste dominance. English formed its own language of gender and made women’s voices stronger in regional languages, which can be seen in the flowering of women’s articles, fiction, biography and letters, they say.
The book, published by Sage, records the different ways in which women responded to the coming of English into their lives.
The beginnings of the English discourse in India in the 19th and the early 20th centuries, as many critics have observed and argued, seems to have been built majorly around the category of gender, says Rani.
Such discourse also presented contradictory approaches to the English argument, but they were all intricately connected, she says.
“English helped in moulding better family women; English provided a garb of modernity to reiterate traditional gender stereotypes; English contributed to the creation of the world of dichotomies but English also created a hope for the outcastes deprived of entry, education and employment,” the book says.
The onus was on women to access the benefits of modernity and also to prove themselves. This proving was limited to their capability in education but extended to their loyalties and roles. So, women started to debate English as education and as lifestyle, grounded in their context and crisis, it says.
According to Rani, the regional languages became vibrant platforms for the discourse around the English question, closely connecting it with the questions of tradition, modernity, colonialism, nation and especially gender.
“English became an agency for women to express themselves and to explore the domains of knowledge that they were not allowed to access earlier. Such women’s voices are heard more extensively and powerfully in regional languages in their fiction, personal narratives, essays, columns and editorials of the journals,” the book says.
The articles in the volume examine the English debate from various angles as debated by women in their articles, speeches, fiction, biographies and letters. The essays take the identities and specificities into consideration instead of essentialising the debates around English.
C Vijayasree argues in “Language, Reform and Nationalism: Indian Women’s Writing in the Nineteenth Century” that the intersecting sites of English education, rhetoric of reform and nationalist discourse provided a larger context within which the literary production of Indian writers took shape in the 19th century.
In “Women and Reform”, Alladi Uma introduces the woman question in term of reform and the nautch question focusing on the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Sanjukta Dasgupta presents “Colonized: The Bengali Woman Writer in British India”, drawing attention to an interesting anti-colonial notion in the 19th century that women’s education, their ability to read and write and publish their writing in regional languages and English were considered serious subversive acts.
Somdatta Bhattacharya’s “Rokeya’s Dream: Feminist Interventions and Utopias” attempts to locate the Bengali Muslim educator and feminist writer Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain in the larger context of women’s education in colonial Bengal and India in the 1900s.
Meera Kosambi argues in “Marathi Women Novelists and Colonial Modernity: Kashibai Kanitkar and Indirabai Sahasrabuddhe” how reform in 19th century western India was a direct result of English education and was a male project with women presented as passive recipients of benefits of the reform movement.
In “Mukta Salve: The Early Emergence of a Protest Voice in Mid-Nineteenth-Century Bombay Presidency, 1855”, Omprakash Manikrao Kamble continues the discussion on the discourse of women and English in Marathi by focusing on a very important voice from the 19th century.
Uma’s discussion of reform as visualised and carried out by the women writers is taken forward by Paromita Bose in “Writing Self: Writing for Others” by choosing to discuss personal histories, identity politics and their close connection with women’s movements.
Jinju S tries to shift focus of the anthology to pre-Independence era by discussing two novels in “Reconfiguring Boundaries: Education, Modernity and Conjugality in Lalithambika Antharjanam’s ‘Agnisakshi’ and Zeenuth Futehally’s ‘Zohra’.”
In “Securing Pass Marks: Education for Women in the Early Modern Kannada Novel”, Nikhila H focuses on the changing meanings of women’s education in the Kannada context during the 20th century.
Sowmya Dechamma’s “Women and English Education in Coorg/Kodagu: A Discussion of Alternate Modernities during 1834-1882” discusses how Coorgs/Kodavas as a community volunteered to educate their children, especially daughters.
Yogitha Shetty’s “Nation, Ideal Womanhood and English Education: Revisiting the First Tulu Novel ‘Sati Kamale’,” focuses on the first Tulu novel “Sati Kamale” by S U Paniyadi.
In “Between Langue and Parole: The Forked Road to Development”, Jasbir Jain touches upon language in the context of education, pedagogy and culture.